/ 9 November 2012

Deep in the trenches of the war on rhinos

A ranger on patrol in the Kruger National Park.
A ranger on patrol in the Kruger National Park. Photo: Supplied

Two mounds of earth under the dead limbs of a marula tree mark the spot where Dario Zitha and his friend, Maqombisi Mongwe, are buried. Spiny branches of sekelbos cover the graves as protection from scavengers. Strewn among the branches are some of the dead men's possessions: Zitha's toothbrush, a used tube of Colgate toothpaste and a blue rucksack; Mongwe's empty wallet, a battered ashtray and pieces of green, pink and blue chalk. A few compact discs – among them a compilation of Irish country music – glint in the sun. Scratches criss-cross the surfaces.

Zitha, the eldest of five brothers, was 38 when he died. He was his family's "breadwinner" and a father of three. Mongwe was in his mid-30s, also married, also described as a "breadwinner". He loved music, they say.

A dirt road leads from the graveyard to Canhane, the tiny village south of Lake Massingir in Mozambique's Gaza province, where the two men spent their lives. The villagers say they left for the bush one day in September 2011. A week later they were returned home in cheap pine coffins with rope handles.

Read more: Rhino butchers caught on film at North West game farm

Zitha's youngest brother, Batista (23), who had accompanied them, was under police guard in a South African hospital. He had been shot in the legs.

A brief statement, issued on September 9 2011 by the corporate communications department of South African National Parks (SANParks), provides a terse record of their deaths.

"A joint operation consisting of…SANParks rangers and the South African National Defence Force yesterday at [Houtboschrand], Kruger National Park, resulted in a shoot-out that led to two suspected poachers being fatally wounded and the third wounded – under police guard in hospital [sic]. A member of the South African National Defence Force also sustained wounds to the leg and is currently receiving medical attention and is in a stable condition. Two rifles, an AK-47 and a .416 hunting rifle, were discovered at the scene. Investigations are currently under way."

Rey Thakhuli, the SANParks general manager for "media, events and stakeholder relations", is quoted in a news report as saying that "a sweep of the area revealed no animal carcasses or injured animals".

Watch video: Inside an illegal hunt

In the shade of another tree, her legs folded under her on a grass mat, Zitha's mother, Amelia Makuvela, works at a makeshift loom with perforated stones serving as weights to stretch the threads. Her home – a hut made of rough-hewn wood and plastered with orange mud – is situated a short distance away.

Why was he killed?
Nearby is a modern construction with ornate burglar bars, lace curtains, a stoep and grey, unfinished cement walls. It stands apart from most of the other wood, mud and thatch homes that are typical of the village. A motorcycle covered with plastic sheeting and a grubby red windbreaker leans against a wall. It is the house Zitha was building when he died. His widow lives there now, with their two young sons. Zitha's daughter has been sent to South Africa to stay with relatives.

Amelia doesn't smile. She's reluctant to discuss her sons with strangers. Zitha's brother, Albert, dressed in a green workman's overall, takes a seat in the dirt beside her. His sister, Lurdes, sits on her mother's left. The visitors are given white plastic chairs to sit on. The village headman's son makes the introductions.

What happened to Zitha? Why was he killed? The family is in denial and talks of "rumours". Nobody wants to speak ill of the dead. Albert answers.

"There are rumours that he was killed by rangers in South Africa, that he was poaching…but I don't know if that's true. I was staying in South Africa when he died. I think he was on his way to look for a job in South Africa.

"When the body came back it was covered, but you could still look at the face. He had a big wound in the back of his head and a smaller one in front. The head was completely open at the back. He was also shot in the groin and chest. His one arm looked like it had been chopped where it was shot."

Albert claims that police in South Africa did not investigate the circumstances of the shooting. No ­postmortem was conducted. No inquest was held. (Police records show that an inquest docket was opened on that date in connection with an incident in Houtboschrand, but, oddly, its status is classed as "undetected", meaning there was insufficient evidence to proceed with an investigation. The dead are identified as Mozambican, but their names are listed as "unknown".)

Perhaps Zitha was simply crossing the park to find work or to visit him in Johannesburg, Albert speculates. Nobody knows. "Once you cross the border, whether you have a firearm or not, whether you're a poacher or not, they will shoot you. No warning."

'Let's run'
Amelia seems less certain of her eldest son's innocence. She refuses to talk about him. Later, when Albert shows me a photograph of Zitha and passes it to her, she shakes her head and refuses to take it.

"My worry now is for the young boy," she says. "Batista is very young and he doesn't know anything. His brother [Zitha] took him with him to Kruger and put him where he is now. Batista was shot in the legs and taken to hospital by police."

She travelled to the South African town of Komatipoort for Batista's trial. Her eyes redden with tears as she speaks. In court "the man who caught them was called".

"He said they saw the footprints where they crossed the border and followed them. They found the three men where they were sleeping. One of them woke up and shouted 'let's run'. They started running and the rangers shot them. The young boy [Batista] wasn't carrying anything, but next to him on the ground they found an axe. They also found two firearms with the others, but only one was a danger."

Were the brothers poaching? Like Albert, she speaks of "rumours". "The rumours say they went to Kruger to go poaching. I don't know why they were really there. [Batista] won't explain it to me now."

Months later, I discover from police that Batista had been convicted on poaching-related charges and sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment or a fine of R5 000. A further three-year jail term was conditionally suspended for five years.

The residents of Canhane and the surrounding villages view the Kruger National Park – which lies about 30km to the west – as a dangerous obstacle. It stands between them and the promise of jobs and money in South Africa. Passports are difficult and expensive to obtain. The wheels of Mozambique's corrupt bureaucracy turn at a snail's pace unless they are greased with cash. For many – particularly those eking out a living below the breadline – there is little choice but to risk the predators, rangers and soldiers. For them, the promised rewards outweigh the risks. Every year people leave for the bush and vanish. Some drown, others are taken by animals. Dozens – some say hundreds – are killed by lions and crocodiles. There are whispered stories of a man-eating pride that lies in wait at full moon to pick off stragglers.

Dangerous animals
Albert, who found work as a builder in Soweto, near Johannesburg, used to brave the myriad invisible pathways through the bush, but now he is one of the lucky ones – he has a passport.

"It is difficult to get work here in Canhane. There are no jobs. You have to go to South Africa to earn money. There are also no jobs in Kruger for us, so we just pass through. There is no benefit from Kruger for us here. Inside Kruger there are dangerous animals. Sometimes we meet lions on our way, but we take the risk because we can't survive here. Life is very hard in the village and we don't have money to feed our families. But we know that if we can just cross the border and pass the animals, we can find a job in South Africa and support, clothe and feed [our families]."

The treacherous journey through the Kruger offers many a stark choice: Why risk being torn apart by animals or arrested simply to earn a pittance in Johannesburg when you can take the same risks for a much greater reward? In a good month, Albert earns R3 000. By contrast, a rhino poacher can pocket anything between R15 000 and R80 000 for a set of horns. For young men like Zitha and Mongwe, the temptation must be overwhelming.

At least two other poachers lie buried under the marula and mopane trees in Canhane's cemetery. And locals say a dozen more from the town of Massingir and the surrounding villages have been shot and killed in the Kruger over the past two years. Many have been arrested.

The names of some of the dead are recorded in the files at the police station situated inside Kruger's main camp, Skukuza. Nearly half a dozen are from Massingir: Valoyi Mongwe – killed near the Houtboschrand ranger camp on August 16 2011; "Joao" – shot dead, also near Houtboschrand, on November 22 2011; Humino Chico, Christo Jose and Jerson Chauke – shot and killed in the Nwanetsi area on March 11 2012.

Yet there appears to be no shortage of takers prepared to risk everything for a few kilograms of rhino horn. The money men, who come from Maputo or from Chokwe, a district capital to the southeast, with their promises of guns and cash, don't have to look far for recruits. It is here, in villages like Canhane, that the war on rhino poachers is being lost.

A few kilometres south of the Mozambican border, two hulking shapes lie motionless in the veld. It is a rhino cow and her calf. The horns are gone. Only tattered flesh remains. Perhaps the calf was killed as it harried the poachers hacking away at its mother's head. More likely, it was killed for what little horn it did have.

Crime investigations unit
The area around the carcasses has been cordoned off with yellow police tape. Square flaps of skin have been cut into the animals' sides and peeled back to reveal ribcages, mangled intestines and a seething mass of maggots. The bullets that killed the rhinos have been removed to be compared with others and samples of tissue have been sent for DNA analysis. If the horns are ever recovered, a match will be crucial to obtain a conviction.

Investigators have scoured the ground for clues: spent shell casings, cigarette butts, plastic wrappers, footprints, tracks, bloodstains – any scraps of evidence that will lead them to the killers. Air support is called in. Rangers, soldiers, police and trackers fan out. It is a race to stop the poachers before they make it to the safety of Mozambique.

"The line of poachers to our border is never going to end," Ken Maggs, the head of SANParks's environmental crime investigations unit, says bluntly. "Not only is the price of horn going up exponentially, but given the unemployment levels in Mozambique and South Africa, there is no limit to the number of people who are going to come across."

Maggs has worked in South Africa's national parks for the past 25 years. He knows more about poachers and their methods than most other investigators in South Africa. It was Maggs who warned in 1994 that "sufficient evidence exists to indicate that an intensified onslaught on the elephant and rhino populations is imminent".

Maggs is 57 and has close-cropped hair that is rapidly turning white and an intensity of expression that gives him a passing resemblance to a younger, fitter Dennis Hopper. He rarely allows himself to be photographed. "I, for one, stay out of the limelight," he says. "This is a serious business and there are serious risks."

Expanding operations
People who have dealt with Maggs describe him as dedicated, efficient, shrewd, manipulative and adept at navigating the fickle political currents of SANParks. He can also be refreshingly frank, which is probably why his employers don't allow him to speak to the media too often. In my case, it took several months of emails and phone calls before the SANParks spin doctors grudgingly acceded to an interview. Maggs seemed surprised that they had.

He took over command of the Kruger Park's anti-poaching unit in 1994. It was a one-man operation based at Skukuza that had the huge task of co-ordinating anti-poaching operations and intelligence gathering. Over the next decade, the unit gradually grew in size, eventually expanding operations to the Eastern and Western Cape, Gauteng and Mpumalanga.

"Last year we killed 21 people," he says matter of factly. "This year, it is about seven so far. Shooting people doesn't solve the problem at all. But you have to be aggressive."

Maggs bridles at suggestions that the Kruger Park is implementing an unofficial "shoot-to-kill" policy and that immigrants trying to make their way across the park are being caught in the crossfire. "All of the guys shot in the park have been in armed conflict. We can't just go and shoot somebody for the sake of shooting somebody. We are bound by laws, whereas the poachers are bound by no rules. A poacher can come in, see one of my guys and kill him. If he gets away with it, he gets away with it. These are armed aggressors coming across our border. Nobody asked a Mozambican to come across.

"At any one time there are 10 to 15  groups of poachers operating in the park in different areas, all armed with a multitude of weapons. They can come in a group of five, armed with three weapons and engage the rangers who – funnily enough – also have families and also live in communities and will be as sorely missed by their families and communities as the poachers are by theirs. We've had hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border from Mozambique into Kruger and there is certainly no trend of us going out of our way to shoot people. The refugees who come through the park don't come through armed. So if you're coming through with an AK-47, what exactly is it that you're wanting to do?"

Extracted from Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade by Julian Rademeyer (Zebra Press). The Last Rhino, a documentary by Clifford Bestall, airs on Al Jazeera English at 9pm on November 15