The inability of the national park to pursue offenders across its border is costing game dearly
Poachers are reported to have killed at least six Kruger tuskers on the Mozambican side of the border with the flagship national park, raising fears that the ivory wars afflicting other parts of Africa have filtered through to South Africa.
Conservationists say elephant poachers appear to be using sophisticated smuggling routes set up to launder rhino horns from the Kruger via Mozambique to Asian countries. The global illegal ivory trade has tripled in the past five years, with up to 50 000 elephants killed in 2011 and the proceeds are believed to be funding insurgencies in Central and East Africa, according to the United States department of state.
Poachers have hammered elephant populations in game reserves in northern Mozambique and they are moving south in their quest for big tuskers, said Mozambican conservationist Carlos Pereira. In the Niassa Reserve on the Mozambican border with Tanzania, at least 2500 elephants have been killed in the past two years.
"We are losing elephants at the rate of three to four a day in Niassa and all the tuskers are gone. Now the poachers are heading south to smaller reserves in Mozambique and to the Limpopo and Kruger national parks," said Pereira, a wildlife veterinarian who advises Mozambique's tourism ministry.
Conservationists based on Mozambique's side of the border with the Kruger, where about 40km of fence was dropped in 2002, say elephants have become skittish and aggressive in recent months as a result of the poaching. At least six bulls that had moved into the area are known to have been gunned down and their tusks removed.
Infiltration into the park by poachers, who have killed at least 145 Kruger rhinos this year, has led to growing militarisation along the border, where a South African National Defence Force helicopter crashed last weekend. South African security forces have killed more than 280 Mozambicans involved in poaching and detained at least 300 in the past five years, according to Mozambican newspapers.
The security forces are not allowed to pursue poachers across the border, however, despite evidence that armed gangs brazenly use well-worn footpaths and find refuge among communities living in villages dotted along the Mozambican side. Poaching is treated as a misdemeanour in Mozambique and security forces in that country have been implicated in the rhino-horn trade.
At least two members of Mozambique's Frontier Guard and one member of its armed forces were shot by South African security when they were caught on poaching missions inside the Kruger, according to O Pais newspaper. Mozambican officials have also been caught supplying guns, ammunition, transport and other support to poachers.
On the Mozambican side, the Limpopo National Park forms part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park with the northern section of the Kruger Park. To the south stretch various private ecotourism and hunting outfits operating in what was intended to be a conservation buffer zone along the border down to Komatipoort.
Private operators based there, who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity, said the Mozambican authorities did not allow them to keep firearms and they had to rely on pepper spray to counter heavily armed poachers. One described how his game scouts tried to encircle rhinos and elephants to chase them back into the Kruger when they crossed the border.
"Sometimes we see bakkies full of poachers following us because they know we have no guns or other recourse. When night falls and the animal is still on the wrong side of the border, we have to leave it and just hope that it is still alive when we get there in the morning," an operator said.
Communication between anti-poaching forces on either side of the border was limited due to the rough terrain and lack of telecommunication and there was often a spirit of rivalry between officials on the two sides which played into poachers' hands, they said.
Poachers living in the villages were easy to identify because their huts had changed into mansions in recent months and they drove smart 4X4s, said private operators. But incidents reported to local police and the Frontier Guard were rarely followed up and cases were known to have been quashed after bribes were paid.
Earlier this year, the South African National Parks (SANParks) board recommended to Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa that the boundary fence along the edge of the Kruger be reconstructed because of the "aggressive incursions from Mozambique". Molewa responded last month that this would depend on an analysis of the rhino-poaching situation in the park and "a lack of positive results emanating from the creation of a buffer zone" along the border.
SANParks, which is hosting a media trip to the border zone next week, said in response to Mail & Guardian questions that it "was not aware of any elephant that was poached in and around the Kruger in recent times". Although the security structures operating in the Kruger were prevented from pursuing poachers across the international border, "they have joint operations with their counterparts in Mozambique which allow them to share information with regard to their operations and such information is used by both parties to pursue cases", said Kruger spokesperson William Mabasa.