Rhino's dying breath signals general's return to war

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The carcass of a poached rhino at the Nwanetsi picnic site in the Kruger National Park on April 9, 2013. Last year 668 rhinos were poached in South Africa, eight times the number in 2008, according to government statistics. Photographer: Cornel van Heerden/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

As he watched a white rhino take its final breath after poachers broke its back and hacked off its horn, major general Johan Jooste said he realized that South Africa is facing a war to save the endangered species.

It was one of at least 273 slaughtered this year by April 30 as poachers target South Africa, where 90 percent of the world's rhinos live, for the horns which sell for more than gold by weight in China and Vietnam where they are believed to cure cancer and boost sexual prowess. Most are killed in the Kruger National Park, an area nearly as big as Israel that abuts a porous border with Mozambique easily crossed by poachers wielding assault rifles.

Jooste, 60, was appointed to a new position in December, overseeing a force of 550 soldiers and rangers. His aim is to halt a poaching surge that the government says may result in the deaths of more rhinos than new births by 2016, threatening the animals, which can weigh as much as 4.5 metric tons, with extinction.

"On the planet, this is the last cache," Jooste said, sitting in his hunter green starched uniform behind a desk decorated with a bayonet and a dark wooden rhino statue at his office in the Kruger Park. "We are fighting an insurgency war."

On March 30, the day before the rhino was found, five soldiers affiliated to the task force died in a helicopter crash. Six more of the animals were killed in the following days.

Border war

"There's no way in the world that losing two-plus rhinos a day is sustainable," Craig Sholley, a vice-president at the Nairobi, Kenya-based African Wildlife Foundation, said in an April 22 phone interview. "We're getting very close."

Jooste fought for South Africa during the apartheid era against Angola in the 1980s before becoming a business developer for BAE Systems Plc (BA/). He believes his time fighting on the border of Namibia, which sits between Angola and South Africa, will serve him in his new role of staunching the flow of poachers from Mozambique.

Jooste, who lives in the park, said he keeps fit by running just after daybreak every day to avoid lions and leopards, who mostly hunt in darkness.

Last year 668 rhinos were poached in South Africa, eight times the number in 2008, according to government statistics. Kruger, which has a 350-kilometer (217 mile) border with Mozambique, is where 72 percent of the killings took place.

"˜Well funded'

With gross domestic product per capita of $650 a year, according to the International Monetary Fund, Mozambique is the world's 20th poorest nation, providing a pool of people willing to risk being shot for a fraction of the spoils from a successful rhino hunt. A 17-year-old Mozambican poacher captured in South Africa said he was given a 12-kilogram (26 pound) sack of corn meal to join a hunting party, according to Jooste.

Rhino horn can sell for as much as $65,000 per kilogram. Gold traded at about $1,467 per ounce as of 3:26 p.m. in London, making it worth $47,170 per kilogram.

"We're dealing with an organized crime element that is extremely well funded," Sholley said. "At the moment they're winning the battle."

So far this year 13 poachers have been killed and 28 arrested in Kruger, according to information from the park. Eight more were arrested near the park yesterday, National Parks said. The South African Press Association reported that a further two people were arrested with rhino horns in the eastern Mpumalanga province, citing police.

Leopards, drones

"We are not happy" with Mozambique's efforts to curb the poaching, Fundisile Mketeni, the deputy director-general in charge of conservation at South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs, said in a phone interview. "They should do as we do, by deploying the police and defense forces."

Mozambique is seeking to implement laws that will make wildlife poaching a crime with heavier sentences than the current offense of damage to property, Minister of Tourism Fernando Sumbana said on a visit to South Africa in March.

Game wardens are now expected to become paramilitary combatants ready to brave predators such as lions and leopards on five-day foot patrols through the savannah, said Jooste. The rangers need to scare off a flow of increasingly well-armed poachers, some of them hardened fighters from Mozambique's 15- year civil war. In the three days following the Easter Sunday holiday on March 31, Jooste's corps killed one poacher, injured another and caught a third.

Radar systems and aerial drones that have proved effective in Iraq and along the border between North and South Korea failed to monitor Kruger effectively because of its dense bush, Jooste said. Instead, he wants to install sensors and increase the use of sniffer dogs and air patrols.

"˜That's bad'

Central to Jooste's plan is creating a buffer zone in Mozambique, by encouraging private developers to build fenced wildlife parks along the border, creating an incentive for the local population to protect the animals by bringing income and employment to the area. On the South African side of the park private estates, used for game lodges, adjoin Kruger. The Private Granite Suites at the private luxury Londolozi game reserve cost as much as $1,390 per person per night.

Tourism contributed 84.3 billion rand ($9.4 billion) in South Africa last year, according to the government. The industry employs 4.5 percent of all working South Africans. Many tourists come to see the so-called Big Five land mammals: elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards and rhinos.

White and black rhinos were brought back from the brink of extinction in South Africa in the 1960s to a stable population of close to 20,000. Most of them are the larger white rhinos and about three quarters are in the Kruger. With fewer than 5,000 black rhinos alive they are classified by the World Wildlife Fund as critically endangered.

For Jooste, looking down at the dying animal brought home the challenges that he and his rangers face.

"We stood at the most horrific sight, a rhino with his nose cut off," Jooste said as he imitated the dying breaths of the rhino. "Now that's bad."

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