Editor’s note: This story is part one of the feature series “South Africa side by side with nature,” which explores two South African landscapes where doing right by nature and doing right by people are the same. Text by Jamey Anderson. See the whole series here.
All for a broken door
The call came just before sundown. A safari tour in a private game reserve connected to Kruger National Park had encountered an unknown man on foot, armed with a hunting rifle. Startled but unharmed, the tour guide radioed in his assessment: He had found a poacher.
The team in charge of response was the reserve’s fledgling anti-poaching unit — a ragtag band comprising the reserve’s chief executive, its operations director and its resident ecologist, a recent hire named Mike Grover. For the young conservationist from Pretoria, the poaching crisis had suddenly become personal.
A few years earlier, Grover had begged his way into a job as a mapping specialist at the reserve, eventually working his way up to be one of its top scientists. Now, he had been asked to swap his large-gauge, bolt-action rifle — the standard for safety from dangerous wildlife — for a semi-automatic weapon of war. The greatest threat in the reserve was no longer the dangerous wildlife but rather the poachers seeking to kill the animals — and anyone who got in their way.
Mike Grover, once the chief ecologist at a private game reserve, is now the senior landscape manager for Conservation South Africa in the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere.
As the small team rolled out around dusk, they knew neither who they were looking for nor how they would find him. Worse, they were vulnerable to ambush as they drove through the dark bush. Eventually finding a cut in the fence on the reserve’s boundary, Grover guarded the crime scene while his colleagues followed suspicious tracks to a house in the local village — a place improbably named Dixie.
Four hours later, South Africa special operations police broke down the door. Inside, they found something they did not expect. Instead of an armed, bush-wise tracker, they found an elderly man and two women — all three terrified by the intrusion.
It was the wrong house.
The episode became a moment of self-reflection for Grover. Was this really the best way to protect nature?
“It left the community members with a whole lot of shock,” he recalled. “It really was like a movie scene, and at the end of the day, all they got was a broken door.”
In the villages around Kruger National Park, residents are caught in the middle of an escalating fight between poachers and conservationists — one that has grown in intensity and violence as prices skyrocket. Poor and dispossessed, these villages potentially hold the key to solving this crisis in the long run, and yet distrust runs deep.
The famous open savanna of Kruger National Park has not always been so wild — it was once home to people as well as wildlife.
When home becomes wild
Today, the South African village of Dixie still bears the name of a place that no longer exists. Squeezed between two connecting fence lines, the town now occupies a sliver of communal rangeland, hemmed in by wildlife reserves on two of its three sides. Yet, the name Dixie refers to a more marginalized place still: The original village, kilometers to the north, was subsumed into a wildlife reserve years ago.
To add insult to this injury, the new Dixie village today is invisible on internet maps, until you realize that it too is — incorrectly — overlaid with the green of the adjacent reserve.
Some of the community’s oldest residents were born in the original Dixie, like their parents and grandparents before them. For years, they peacefully grazed their cattle — long the local currency of wealth and prestige — amid the wildlife.
But the coexistence did not last. Responding to visitors who wanted what they imagined to be an authentic African experience — a wild land unmarred by people — land owners forcibly moved the villagers and their livestock. According to community stories, residents were given a week to move their entire village, walking back and forth across the savanna carrying their possessions by hand.
Stories like Dixie’s are common in the communities that border Kruger National Park. One of Africa’s first protected game reserves, Kruger was also one of the continent’s earliest contributions to the troubled global history of forced indigenous removal from conservation areas.
Originally set aside as a hunting ground for the white elite of South Africa, Kruger was carved out of a landscape that had always included people. But, determining the area’s indigenous Shangaan Tsonga people to be incompatible with the conservation goals of the preserve, the white nationalist government of the early 20th century forcibly removed the area’s inhabitants, relocating them to dozens of cramped villages like Dixie on the park’s western border.
Photo gallery: Wildlife of Kruger National Park
Today, Kruger is one of Africa’s most famous and valuable protected areas. It is a stronghold for endangered and iconic species and a cornerstone of South Africa’s tourism economy. In the years since the fall of apartheid in 1995, its protection has remained a point of national pride for South Africa’s national government, and the park has made persistent progress toward diversifying the ranks of its managers, scientists and rangers to better reflect the new South Africa.
Park management has also taken assertive steps to address the historic inequalities outside the reserve, including contracting directly with local small businesses, holding listening sessions to hear about community concerns and working cooperatively with nonprofit partners to support development initiatives. The efforts by the park have been great, but the task remains formidable.
Just outside the fence, the communities on Kruger’s borders remain largely underdeveloped and underserved, like much of rural South Africa. It is against this backdrop of historical injustice and stubborn inequality that the response to the poaching crisis has played out.
A southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum simum) in Kruger National Park. South Africa has the largest remaining rhino populations in the world, but they are being lost at 5 to 6 percent a year due to poaching.
The human toll of a lucrative crime
Kruger National Park and the communities around its borders represent the global front line in the battle against rhino poaching. South Africa contains the largest remaining rhino populations in the world, and most of the killing is happening in and around Kruger.
The statistics are grisly. In Kruger National Park alone, 662 rhinos were slain in 2016, out of 1,054 poached across all of South Africa. In the last year, a total of 680 poachers and traffickers were arrested nationwide, and suspected poachers are routinely killed in ranger actions, though exact figures are difficult to verify.
The stakes are high. In East Africa, the cousin of South Africa’s southern white rhino, the northern white, is now extinct in the wild. A single male and two females are what remain of the species. If current poaching rates persist in South Africa, the southern white would meet the same end in 20 years.
For wildlife products such as rhino horn, the market pressure is overwhelming, with the price of rhino horn worth more than its weight in gold. Globally, the trade of illegal wildlife products has been estimated at between US$ 10 billion and 20 billion each year. Money like this has attracted international criminal networks and even terrorist groups in some parts of the world.
The fence that separates the village of Dixie from the neighboring wildlife reserve. Perimeter fences were first constructed around nature reserves to keep wildlife in. Now, they are built to keep poachers out, with electrified wires and automated alarm systems.
As a result, the act of poaching has evolved far from a lone gunman trekking through the bush. It has become a full-fledged criminal enterprise with connections that reach deep into a community, a fact that has far-reaching implications for the people caught in the middle.
“The plight of poaching for a community is not about the man pulling the trigger,” Grover said. “The problem is that there is enough money for the guy that gets otherwise involved.”
This involvement can take many forms. A young boy is given a handgun and told to go fire into the air along a fence line, drawing out response units while poachers go in elsewhere. A mechanic is paid for his knowledge of the maintenance schedules of anti-poaching helicopters so that poachers know when they are out of service. New arrivals in the community are given money and housing, in exchange for their future assistance in poaching operations.
For a community where many live on the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars a day from meager cattle ranching or odd tourist jobs, these small acts can bring in many months’ worth of pay — all without ever entering a game reserve.
In response, anti-poaching efforts have become professionalized across sub-Saharan Africa. With dedicated response teams, centralized intelligence gathering and beefed up security infrastructure, these operations can more closely resemble a military presence than a law enforcement action.
The result has been an arms race, with increasingly brazen tactics by poachers met with ever more militarized responses from parks and reserves. Meanwhile, nearby communities are often caught in the middle, straining the very relationships needed to solve this crisis in the long term.
Magogo-Mesilina Sibuyi from Dixie village tends to her crops. Agriculture — in the form of small plots and cattle — has traditionally been the economic bedrock of the community.
Hope for cooperation, from an unlikely source
In communities where most residents have never seen the inside of the nature reserves that abut their villages, the concept of wildlife protection often holds little value.
“For them, there is no benefit to living close to a wildlife area,” Grover said. “If anything, there is only a negative.”
On top of dealing with poachers and anti-poaching operations, residents must periodically look out for escaped predators, farmers must defend their crops from raiding baboons, and ranchers must contend with disease transmission from the park’s buffalo herds to their cattle.
A herder in Utah village near Kruger National Park. Raising livestock near the park means contending with disease transferred from buffalo herders and even fending off the occasional escaped predator.
In these villages, the entirety of a family’s wealth may be in the form of cattle. Defending a herd therefore takes on the same urgency as defending a bank account.
Grover recalls the response he got when he first asked a community elder for assistance in countering the growing poaching threat. The elder told Grover, “You don’t value what we have. Why should we value what you have?”
“When you value our cattle,” the elder said, “then we will value your rhino.”
For Grover, it was the first step toward finding a new model for combating poaching — one that worked with the local community instead of against them, valuing cattle as well as rhino.