Citizen (South Africa)

The Equestrian unit of the KNP during the launch of Project Ivory in the Kruger National Park, 28 January 2019. Picture: Neil McCartney

The Equestrian unit of the KNP during the launch of Project Ivory in the Kruger National Park, 28 January 2019. Picture: Neil McCartney

In 2015, 24 elephants were killed in the Kruger National Park, followed by 46 in 2016 and 67 in 2017. In 2018, 71 were killed – an all-time high.

Elephant poaching in the SA National Parks’ flagship Kruger National Park (KNP) has reached an all-time high, with 71 of the mega-herbivores killed for their ivory in 2018.

This was revealed at the launch of Project Ivory in the Kruger yesterday, designed to focus on elephant poaching north of the Olifants River.

And even though the elephant population was growing at 4% per year, making for an estimated 20 000 pachyderms since the 2017 census, criminality could not be allowed to flourish, said head ranger Nicholas Funda.

The numbers showed how rhino poaching has affected attempts to protect elephants, with resources diverted to south of the Olifants in the ongoing war against those who would violently separate a rhino from its horn.

In 2012, said Funda, two elephant were killed. Then in 2015, 24 were killed, followed by 46 in 2016 and 67 in 2017. The rate of poaching has slowed however, in part due to better resource management, and in part due to a long running pilot project with horses.

Launched in 2016 by Phalaborwa section ranger Karien Keet, the specially trained for endurance animals can cover up to 30km a day. The horses allowed them to get much closer to animals than rangers on foot and for now, said Keet, predators were avoiding the horses.

“The Phalaborwa section consists of 40km of western boundary fence and historically most of our incursions through it,” Keet said.

The initial objective of the mounted unit was to patrol the fence to check for incursions and then send the field rangers to intercept poachers. There are currently 16 members of the unit consisting of fully equipped and trained field rangers.

Keet noted tests were done on integrating tracker dogs with the horses which would work off leash.

“The aim of Project Ivory is to unashamedly mobilise resources,” said General (Ret) Johan Jooste, adding no one could have predicted the wave of poaching which broke over Kruger.

These would include a new joint operations centre, fixed wing aircraft and helicopters to make life more difficult for the poachers.

“Most of the poaching is coming from Mozambique,” said Xanatsani South regional ranger Derek Mashale.

The poachers use the river to work their way into the park and thanks to the intensive protection zone thrown around rhino, elephants are the softer target.

Also cutting through the north of the park are two power lines which illegal immigrants use as landmarks when entering South Africa.

Given rhino poachers generally entered the park through the eastern boundary, it was possible poachers were also using illegal immigrants as a cover in the north, Xanatsani North regional ranger Tinyiko Golele said.

– amandaw@citizen.co.za