07 Nov 2014 Kruger’s rhino poaching ‘highway’
Mozambican poachers are using sugar cane fields to sneak into the Kruger National Park, where shootouts with anti-poaching teams are peaking and rhino poaching statistics continue to rise. Fiona Macleod reports
Mozambican poachers infiltrating the Kruger National Park to kill rhinos have found a convenient “highway” through a property controlled by Tongaat Hulett, say anti-poaching operatives.
A record 54 poachers were arrested in the Kruger in October and, according to the operatives, many used this highway through sugar cane fields to access the park from Mozambique.
An incursion along the “highway” two weeks ago led to a shootout between rangers and three suspected poachers, during which two suspected poachers were killed and the third managed to escape back into Mozambique. A hunting rifle, ammunition and other hunting equipment were confiscated.
“The Kruger has experienced an increase in armed incursions recently, resulting in 14 contacts between armed poaching gangs and our joint forces,” said spokesperson Reynold Thakhuli. “The latest arrests bring the total for the year to 144 – the highest number of suspected poachers arrested in the park to date.”
Thakhuli confirmed incursions into the park had taken place via the 14 000ha Massitonto concession controlled by Tongaat Hulett. The sugar cane fields are situated between the eastern fence of the Kruger and Magude village, one of the main thoroughfares of rhino horn smuggling in Mozambique.
Tongaat Hulett’s concession forms part of the Greater Lebombo Conservancy area along Kruger’s border. Various private game reserves are putting measures in place to secure the 2 680 square kilometres against poachers.
According to anti-poaching operatives in Mozambique who did not want to be named, the Tongaat Hulett property is relatively open and is being exploited by poachers to gain access to the Kruger, mostly at night. It abuts the central section of the park and the game fence along the border is insufficient to prevent human infiltration.
Communications between park officials and Tongaat Hulett, which Oxpeckers has seen, indicate incursions via the Massitonto concession have been a problem for several years but have escalated in recent months.
At least 581 rhinos have been killed in the Kruger this year and about 80% of the poachers involved come from Mozambique, according to Johan Jooste, the retired major general who heads up Kruger’s anti-poaching forces.
The total tally throughout South Africa reached 899 by the end of October and, given the average poaching rate of three rhinos a day, 2014 looks set to surpass the record 1004 rhinos killed 2013.
“A conservative estimate is that about a dozen groups of three poachers each are operating in the park at any time – about 36 to 40 poachers,” Jooste said in an interview with Africa Geographic in August.
“There are about three groups entering and exiting the park every day. A poaching group can spend up to four or five days in the park.”
Despite numerous meetings and communications between Kruger officials and Tongaat Hulett management in Mozambique, the situation has continued to escalate and a meeting was this week set up between Jooste and Tongaat Hulett chief executive Peter Staude for later this month.
With its high-yield soil, sub-tropical climate and good water resources, the Lebombo border region is sweet for sugar producers. Tongaat Hulett is one of several South African companies expanding cane lands in the region.
The cane supplies a nearby mill called Xinavane, about 136km north of Maputo. Tongaat Hulett owns 88% of the company operating the mill, Açucareira de Xinavane, and the Mozambican government owns the remaining share.
Sugar production capacity at the Xinavane mill has reached more than 240 000 tons in a 32-week crushing season and is expected to grow in the future, according to Tongaat Hulett’s 2014 annual report.
The company executive responsible for its Mozambique operations, Rosario Cumbi, has met Kruger officials several times in the past. Two Kruger field rangers were sent to the Massitonto concession for two weeks to provide training for staff members working there.
But the Kruger officials said this week their suggestions on how to improve anti-poaching interventions at Massitonto were not being implemented with the necessary sense of urgency.
Cumbi said various security interventions had been implemented at Massitonto. These included assigning 14 security guards from the Xinavane mill to Massitonto, as well as six field rangers who were selected from the local community and had undergone anti-poaching training at the Maputo Elephant Reserve.
“There are also four policemen, two of whom have undergone anti-poaching training at the Maputo Elephant Reserve. In essence there are 12 people patrolling in the area at any given time. They work in two shifts of 12 people each – seven days’ work and seven days’ rest,” Cumbi said.
Tongaat Hulett spokesperson Michelle Jean-Louis said the company had approached the Mozambican government “to assist with developing a broader approach to dealing with this concern”.
About 1 500 Mozambicans were undergoing anti-poaching training under the auspices of the Ministries of Interior and of Tourism. They would be distributed throughout the wildlife areas of Mozambique and indications were that 20 people would be assigned to Massitonto.
The meeting between company executives and Major General Jooste, scheduled for November 18, would “identify any further actions that Tongaat Hulett can undertake with the Kruger to further secure the land managed by the company in the Massitonto district”, Jean-Louis said.
Counter-wildlife trafficking programmes in Mozambique were given a boost last week when the Peace Parks Foundation pledged R30-million to assist the Mozambican government implement practical measures to tackle cross-border incursions by poachers.
The deal focused chiefly on bolstering anti-poaching cooperation in and around Limpopo National Park, which adjoins the northern part of Kruger to form the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park.
It also included training and equipment for rangers in Mozambique, the establishment of research capabilities and support for anti-trafficking policy-making.
Anti-poaching operatives working south of the transfrontier park, where poverty and corruption are helping the poachers across the border, said this week they were not convinced the Peace Parks deal would stem the flow along the poaching highway.