Interview with Kruger’s anti-poaching chief

Original source: yearinthewild.com

There’s a small sign above Major-General Johan Jooste’s desk at his office in Skukuza, the headquarters of Kruger National Park. It says: “Think Big, Start Small, Act Now”. It’s an apt credo for the man in charge of anti-poaching at South African National Parks.

The 61-year-old ex-army general joined the organisation in 2013, and has been tasked with one of the country’s biggest, most immediate challenges: combatting the scourge of rhino poaching. Last year, 606 rhino were killed in Kruger, out of a total number in South Africa of 1004. “We are fighting a war,” says Jooste, who retired from the army in 2006 after 35 years of service, but also has an MBA and has worked in business development in the arms industry.

I spent this past Saturday flying with General Jooste in one of the anti-poaching helicopters to visit the various section rangers that are based across the vastness of Kruger’s 20 000 square kilometres. We spoke about what he and his team of rangers are doing to fight the poachers, the strategy behind moving 500 rhinos out of Kruger, and the looming threat of elephant poaching.

Airborne with General Jooste and pilot Iain de Beer.

Airborne with General Jooste and pilot Iain de Beer.

Scott Ramsay: What is your exact role?

Johan Jooste: I was contracted for five years beginning of 2013 to head up anti-poaching within South African National Park. For now my job is all about Kruger and its rhino. I know there are other parks and other animals – not the least of which is elephant – but for now it’s Kruger and its rhino. That’s the battle we have to win now, without being shortsighted.

SR: What are you dealing with in Kruger?

JJ: We are fighting a war. These rhinos in Kruger are the most valuable cache of environmental assets in the world. Rhino horn is more valuable than gold or platinum. Gram for gram, its the most expensive commodity on the planet. Throughout Africa, rangers are performing military roles to battle poachers. We have to militarise our ranger corps. This problem will not go away. Supply meets demand in Africa. Poaching of rhino is low-risk criminal activity (compared to a cash-in-transit heist), it requires few logistics and it’s relatively easy. A poacher can easily carry a set of horns between 6 and 9kg and he earn millions of rand ultimately.

SR: How many men do you supervise?

JJ: I have about 400 rangers, and about 150 other men, including special rangers, as well as an airwing, comprising two helicopters, two fixed wing aircraft and two microlights. I also have a small contingent of police and I have joint command with an army company.

SR: Where is poaching mostly taking place in Kruger?

JJ: 80% of poaching is by Mozambicans, who enter the park south of the Olifants River. It’s happening all over the park, but recently mostly in the south, because there is more rhino in the south. Since we’ve tightened up security on the borders, poachers will infiltrate at night, walking up to 25km into the park to poach. We’ve recently put pressure on the east, and since then the poaching from the west of Kruger has also picked up.

SR: How many poachers are operating in the park at any one time?

JJ: A conservative estimate is about a dozen groups of three poachers each at any time, so about 36 to 40 poachers. 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.

SR: So the poachers are spread out all over the park?

JJ: Yes, but sometimes over full moon they will concentrate in one area, knowing that the rules of engagement favour them, and puts us on the back foot. We have to arrest them, and we’re not allowed to kill them intentionally. And they know this, so their theory is “let them chase us”, and they will come into the park in such numbers that we can just not plug all the holes.

SR: Who is your typical poacher?

JJ: They are young men, in their 20s, recruited from poverty, but who later become greedy. They are uneducated and they have very few opportunities to get a job. The rifle handlers are selected well, because the .458 and .375 rifles are high-value assets. The navigator is also important because he’s the guy who knows the park, has been in before, and can guide them at night. The third guy caries the knives and axe, food and water. As much as I despise them, the poachers can survive well in the bush, and their bushcraft is remarkable. Their tracking is good, and their resilience is of note. They are a formidable opponent with no rules.

SR: What are the main measures you have taken to reduce poaching?

JJ: A variety of measures. When I arrived, we had to unify command. We had to group all the enforcement agencies – the airwing, the army, the rangers – into one cohesive force. We had to set up a nerve centre, the joint operational centre. We then consolidated the state of the rangers – the preparedness and the sustainability of the rangers as a force. We then expanded the corps, to include an airwing, canine units and special rangers. We concurrently worked on an alliance with all our neighbours, in Mozambique and locally, with parks, concessions and communities, so that we have a buffer zone, so that intelligence is shared and joint action is taking place.

Then we have technology. By October 2013, we knew which technologies would work here, and by end of next year, we will be using an array of sensors that will allow early detection of the poachers. We also set up designated protection zones. We have an intensive protection zone in the south, a joint protection zone in the centre, and a composite protection zone in the far north. In the south of Kruger is a quarter of the world’s rhino, with one rhino for every square kilometre. As much as we believe we must solve the problem mainly on the outside of the park, a lot of technology will be deployed in the south to intensively protect this rhino.

SR: What technology is going to be deployed?

JJ: We will be using detection and early-warning technology. We have to react to what we detect, so the operation nerve centre will grow, and will allow us to allocate accurate resources. We are retraining the reaction forces in the south. A dedicated helicopter will used in the south, to ensure a sub-15 min reaction time to poachers, and will be able to fly at night so we’re not restricted to daytime air responses.

SR: What about the rest of Kruger’s rhinos?

JJ: Don’t get me wrong, we are not neglecting the rest of the park’s rhinos, but we have to dig in our heals and focus our priorities. 60% of the park’s rhinos are in the south, on 20% of the surface area of the park.

The government and public are working to reduce demand from Vietnam and Thailand, to involve communities, and diplomats are working with Mozambique to sort their own problems out. We have to create a safe haven, a bastion, a fortress to make sure that we safeguard this core population. If poachers get in here in numbers, they will kill as much as they can.

A rhino killed by poachers in Kruger National Park. Photographed from the park's Eurocopter B3 helicopter, flown by pilot Iain De Beer.

A rhino killed by poachers in Kruger National Park. Photographed from the park’s Eurocopter B3 helicopter, flown by pilot Iain De Beer.

SR: Have the new dog teams have made a big difference?

JJ: We’ve expanded the dog teams, not only with special rangers, but also with section rangers and their teams, and we’re aiming to place dogs at all the gates. One of the dogs is an explosive detector, so the dog can pick up ammunition or weaponry, while the other is a natural asset detector, trained to pick up animal products, specifically rhino horn. We have just under 20 dogs currently, but we need a minimum of 50 dogs.

SR: What happens to the poachers when they are caught?

JJ: It’s a crime scene immediately, whether there’s an arrest or fatality. The police are called in. Crime scene management takes place. It’s very important, because we need proof in the court. It must be a very meticulous process. Then it’s in the hands of the police, and it goes into the legal system. Our legal system has improved drastically, we have a better conviction rate, the turn-around time is quicker, and the sentences are harsh.

SR: Bail and fines are being paid for poachers. Where does this money come from?

JJ: We must not forget that what we are dealing with here is international organised crime, backed up by foreign criminals. These syndicates are so wealthy that they could be a Fortune 500 company on their own. They don’t have any conscience, laws or rules and they have good intelligence, and they have unlimited resources. So they will help poachers out, there will be bail and then legal defence. Every time we have a crime scene, we have to be very careful to manage it carefully so we have the proof to get a conviction.

SR: Shoot to kill. What is your view?

JJ: It will improve our success rate, and it will be a deterrent, but it won’t stop the poaching. In this park, which is 20 000 square kilometres of thick bushveld, it is too difficult to detect people, so the risk is low, and poachers know this.

SR: How may poachers have you apprehended?

JJ: In 2013, we neutralised 133 poachers, of which 47 were killed. This year so far we have neutralised 76, of which about 20 have been killed.

SR: What are the poachers on the ground being paid?

JJ: It varies, but one can safely say that a group of three poachers can earn more than R100 000 for one poaching excursion. Sometimes they will get paid per kilogram, so they can earn over R200 000. But they will earn more than R100 000, or about R30 000 each for two or three days work.

If you’ve grown up in destitute poverty, that changes your life. And if you do it a few times, your life is changed forever. It’s the powerful social force that we are dealing with. The adjacent communities don’t own the park. It has never been theirs. If you’re living in an adjacent community, you’re going to ask: “What do I get from that park? A few of my community work there, but most of us, what do we get?”

SR: What do you need to reduce poaching to acceptable levels?

JJ: We need national, regional and global involvement. National – the whole government, the police, the army, SARS must play their role. Regional – we have to solve the Mozambique problem. What we are doing now is barely keeping it in check. The growth in poaching is slowing down, but poaching is not decreasing. To bring the number down will require a national, regional and global solution, of which demand reduction is critical.

On the ground with Kruger's rangers.

On the ground with Kruger’s rangers.

SR: What do you need on the ground to do more?

JJ: In an ideal world, we need more men. The norm is one ranger for every 10 square km. In Kruger we have 1 ranger for every 50 square km. We could have 2 000 rangers, and a fortified boundary of 1 000km around the park, with helicopters and technology. We have 400 rangers at the moment, we probably need five times that.

But we must be careful because this is a tourist destination, and not an army base, so do we really want those numbers of enforcement staff? And with all the extra people comes risk too, because there are far more people entering and leaving the park.

And there’s also logistical costs of hiring 1 500 extra staff: housing, offices, management, equipment, vehicles, fuel, food and services, all of which can swallow up budget that could be spent more accurately.

SR: So what is that “more accurate” solution?

JJ: The philosophy will always be to clear the park from the outside. We have to work the problem in Mozambique, work on reducing demand in Vietnam and China, and work on the crime networks.

In an ideal world, we could have far more staff, but I’d rather have intelligence agencies outside, that disrupt the networks and focus on nailing the Mozambican middlemen who are the conduits for the money. But up until recently, it was not illegal to poach in Mozambique. Amazingly, there are still no laws against poaching wildlife. A new bill was recently gazetted in April, but it still has be passed into law. So that will help a bit.

SR: But even if they have the new law, will they enforce it? Can South African rangers or police not arrest these middlemen in Massingir?

JJ: Trust me, it’s enormously tempting for my teams to go across the border and throw these guys in the back of a truck and bring them back here, but we can’t do that. It’s actually so unacceptable that nothing is happening in Mozambique about these guys, but that’s not under my control.

We are fighting a war here. Mozambicans are making armed, illegal incursions into South Africa, another sovereign country, plundering our resources, and exiting with our resources. We have on average 3 armed incursions by poachers every day, about 90 per month. To me, that’s an act of war.

We know many of the “level 2” bosses, who are living in Massingir. 80% of the solution lies in taking these guys out. We are hopeful that some of the pressure to remove the middlemen will materialise soon, now that Lieutenant-General Vineshkumar Moonoo, the police’s head of detectives, has joined the government’s rhino poaching task force. We will expect that soon we will have the ability to work with the Mozambican police to pursue the middlemen.

SR: What about putting the fence back up between Mozambique and Kruger?

JJ: Yes, we will be putting up a fortified, monitored fence in the south, on the east of the intensive protection zone, from the southern boundary of the park to a latitude north of Skukuza. A fence is part of the overall solution. A fence itself that is not monitored regularly is useless, and means nothing. The world over, people can get through fences. But a physical obstacle along with surveillance can work.

SR: What about intelligence gathering and informers?

JJ: We have informer networks outside the park, in co-operation with the police, and although we can’t go into Mozambique ourselves, we have good contacts there. We have a standing reward for information that leads to a conviction, but the big flaw is that up till now, convictions can take three or four years.

SR: Elephant poaching that has ravaged East Africa is coming to South Africa. Already two elephants have been killed for ivory in the north of the park. What are you doing about that?

JJ: Yes, it’s coming. Let’s not be silly. We can’t wait for another rhino situation with our elephants. Everything that we are doing now as a team is aimed at making our rangers better at anti-poaching, so we don’t just deal with rhinos, but also elephants and other animals.

But we must also look at asset protection as a region. If we don’t have a regional task force, even a continental task force, we have no chance. We have to reduce demand and we have to nail the syndicates.

SR: Environment minister Edna Molewa announced recently that a few hundred rhino would be moved from Kruger to other protected areas – what’s the strategy there?

JJ: I head up the rhino steering committee for Kruger, and we have a holistic approach to our rhino problem. What are our options? We need law-enforcement, we need intelligence, we need demand reduction, but we also have to decide what we do with our current rhinos. Do we dehorn them? Do we move them? And we decided that relocating them is part of the solution to protecting them for the future.

SR: How many will be moved and to where?

JJ: Initially, about 260 rhinos, but ultimately about 500. There are various venues, but in the short term mostly the northern cape. Other countries are not excluded.

SR: There’s been a public uproar about the sale of the rhinos to private game farms that offer hunting. Are the Kruger rhinos going to be hunted?

JJ: No, they are being sent to private game reserves or state protected areas to be conserved. The rhinos Kruger sells to these places are not allowed to be hunted. That’s in the contracts.

SR: How much is the revenue from the sale of the rhino, and what’s happening to the revenue of the sale of the rhinos?

JJ: It’s about R300 000 per animal (so about R80 million – SR). It’s coming back to SANParks, and most of it will come to conservation, and my team will benefit directly from that.

SR: Rhino horn trade. Should there be trade? What’s your opinion?

JJ: This is my personal opinion. I’ve read so much about it, and I’m not sure what the long-term effect will be. Will legal trade help in the short-term, or will it put pressure on us in the long-term. Can it solve the problem? It’s very hard to tell so I’m not sure about trade. But on the other hand, what options do we have? This problem does not have a single, lasting solution. We need a set of solutions that evolves. There are no easy answers.

SR: So what are the long-term solutions to stopping the poaching of Africa’s wildlife?

JJ: There are only two long-term solutions. Giving ownership of Africa’s parks to surrounding communities, so they take responsibility themselves for their wildlife, so they feel a strong sense of ownership in the wellbeing of their wildlife. And second, we have to reduce demand in Vietnam, Thailand and China.

SR: Last question. Are you and your team in Kruger going to win this war?

JJ: Yes.

General Jooste (left) briefs some of Kruger's section rangers, who are at the frontlines of the war against poachers.

General Jooste (left) briefs some of Kruger’s section rangers, who are at the frontlines of the war against poachers.

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Scott Ramsay

Photojournalist Scott Ramsay spends most of each year exploring Southern Africa's protected areas, taking photographs and interviewing the experts who work in the protected areas.Through his work, he hopes to inspire others to travel to the continent's national parks and nature reserves, which Scott believes are Africa's greatest assets, and deserve to be protected at all costs not only for our own survival, but for their own sake. For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com or www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Partners include Ford Everest, Goodyear, Cape Union Mart, K-Way, Globecomm, SANParks, CapeNature, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Eastern Cape Parks.

  • Michael Schwartz

    What a fantastic interview! It was objective and well informed

    • Scott

      Thanks Michael. I was just the messenger! But appreciate it.

  • Alfredo

    The solution is simple. They need drones with night-vision and infrared sensors that can stay aloft for 12 hours at a time, armed with Hellfire missiles. Anytime a rhino is poached, the team is eliminated. Shoot to kill, but only after a rhino is killed. Poachers will notice real quick that no one comes back.

    • disqus_JXTaH3N9kU

      I’m sorry but that is a foolish assertion. The solution is anything but simple. If it was, the problem would be solved. Millions of dollars are being spent and thousands of people and charities are involved in trying to recduce poaching and nothing so far has worked. It would be nice to have lots of drones doing what you suggest but who is going to pay for them ? And who is going to change the law making it legal to shoot to kill poachers ? You are indulging in wishful thinking, not a likely solution.

      • Alfredo

        As you admit, millions of dollars are being wasted and nothing is working (“Millions of dollars are being spent and thousands of people and charities are involved in trying to recduce poaching and nothing so far has worked.”). Where is the money going to come from? Cut those useless efforts and there you go. Who is going to change the law? Someone with willpower. If not, too bad… there goes all the wildlife and tourism economy.

    • Karin

      Very good idea! We need someone to fund it!

      • Alfredo

        Get rid of many of the 540 rangers who need to slowly follow spoor to track poachers and risk their lives in shootouts. Get rid of some of the 1500 support staff. Don’t fund that useless fence that can be simply climbed over or dug under. Get rid of the passive, unarmed, manned helicopters and planes that can stay aloft for only 5 hours at a time anyway. And there you go. You’ll have money for several 1M chinese drones that have a 4000km range, 20 hour endurance, 4 missiles, infrared cameras

    • Scott

      While I can understand your sentiments, Alfredo, the law is such that you can not shoot to kill. If you do, you can be prosecuted. I’m not sure it’s a sustainable solution either. If you read the interview, the rewards are so great for poachers that it’s worth the risk of poaching – even if there was a shoot-to-kill policy. Demand reduction in Asia is the key thing.

      • Alfredo

        Demand reduction is fantasy. There are 1.6 billion Chinese alone. Not to mention all the other countries where ivory is prized even more, e.g. Vietnam, etc. You can’t change culture within 20 years. By then, wildlife will be decimated. It’s a risk-reward analysis for poachers. It’s worth it right now because only 47 of 3200+ poachers each year get killed. That’s an only 1.4% chance of getting killed. If there were drones, the percentage would be much much higher. After a couple months, no one would even try anymore.

        • Scott

          Hi Alfredo. Whether it’s a fantasy or not, it has to happen. That’s the only long term solution. Shoot to kill may be a deterrent, but it’s not going to solve the underlying cause. I’m also skeptical of how one can change 2 billion Asians’ attitudes, but have a read of this interview with the chief of Wild Aid. Some very interesting progress being made in Asia. http://ensia.com/interviews/peter-knights-curbing-the-demand-for-wildlife/

          • Alfredo

            Traditional shoot to kill is not much of a deterrent because it’s so ineffective. It’s so hard to find poachers, and rangers are so slow at tracking that only 4% of poachers are identified. With drones, the percentage identified and killed would be much much higher. You can have indefinite deterrence.

            Why do you have to solve the underlying cause?

            S.Africa can only rely on S.Africa. Begging billions of others to change their culture is putting your interests in others peoples’ hands – a bad idea.

  • Karina1

    I worry about the final destination of these rhinos to be sold.

    • Scott

      Hi Karina, you are right to ask the question, but if you read the interview, Jooste says that the rhinos that are moved from Kruger are not allowed to be hunted, even if they are going to private reserves where hunting is offered.

      • Karina1

        Thank you Scott, I did see that but I do not trust these hunting reserves.

  • http://frantic-naturalist.com/ Vernon Swanepoel

    Great post, Scott.

    The current rhino situation is deeply serious and worrying. I think that articles like this really help bring the reality of the situation out into the open.

    The price of rhino horn is perhaps the most worrying thing. If there are advances in how they are fighting poachers on the ground there will be equal advances on the side of the poachers.

    As someone living in Namibia we’ve been really concerned as we’re seeing the poaching rings spread out and there is now no rhino population in Africa that isn’t in some way coming under threat.

    • Scott

      Thanks Vernon, appreciate the feedback. Gen Jooste and his team give me confidence that they are slowly getting on top of the challenge. And I agree 100% with him that we have to reduce demand from Asia. That is the key thing.

  • Bonne de Bod

    Great interview! Protecting an area larger than Israel is not an easy task. In an interview with Major-General Jooste he told me that we are not winning this war yet, but that we will. That answer is reinforced here!

    • Scott

      Yes, Bonne, positive results are going to take time, but SA must support Jooste, his team and the government’s detectives now. Patience and persistence is required!

  • Barry Gray

    Love this account and the good approach. For any relocated Rhinos under those water tight contracts, Another not so difficult item has to be instituted. A RHINO RELOCATION REGISTRY, as well as policing body put in place. Pointless putting animals into apparently safe places, which would be large game farms, and not monitor some way they are still there in a year or two is pointless, with spot checks. Greed is a strange thing and the maths to make money scary and tempting, one rhino live ZAR200 000-00, A quick snuff of that rhino in a game farm and horn sold approximately ZAR1 500 000(for horn) a quick ZAR1 300 000 profit. There is good anecdotal evidence that this method has been employed by ‘LEGAL’ owners.Those relocated horns with Rhinos need to be tagged , like dogs, in some way, for vereification, And contracts also need to state new owners have to account for ever Rhino and horn they are apparnatly taking into safety. Also a national Rhino registry need to be put in place for all animals as best s possible. BUT then the age old greed creeps in, One crook gets that registry and he knows where every rhino is, a double edged sword. BUT for my money, every apparent safe haven must be tracked and monitored going forward, with each new owner under no illusions, (if ye can not prove the Rhino is still there in 1/2//3/4/5/ years) you will be punished. Then I hear people say impossible??? No, we send people to space, we track millions of people with id’s and tracking and finger prints, we have the technology to mark and monitor specific animals In know designated areas. Sorry for verbal diahorea!!

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