Kruger National Park
This was my third or fourth Wolhuter Trail since the late nineties, but it was like no other. The anti-poaching ¨war¨ has changed the atmosphere in the park. It is like we are clinging on to a century-old, island model of conservation that is being inexorably eroded by the rapids of poaching and demand for wildlife parts in the East. At times I was transported back to a time in South Africa´s counter-insurgency border war in northern Namibia, as we ¨patrolled¨ the area around the trails camp in the hilly, south-western corner of Kruger. Every evening the dirt tracks would be swept by vehicles dragging branches or tires, so that poachers´ tracks would be easily visible the next day; ranger pickets were manning the granite koppies and a chopper regularly thumped above while the ranger radio crackled.
Our trails rangers were as much interested in pointing out animal tracks as they were in locating poacher tracks, of which there were many. The poachers walk at night, just off the wildlife paths, but every now and then stray into a sandy patch, leaving clear imprints. If they were fresh, the rangers would quickly radio the location into the nearest anti-poaching unit. The section rangers and their staff are armed with assault rifles and wear camouflage battle-dress. At the large restcamps we regularly saw canine tracking units refuelling their vehicles in the morning.
On our first sundowner excursion, we were taken to the carcass of a rhino poached days before, its backbone picked clean and its thick hide stretched out on the flattened brown grass. That evening, and over the following days, we saw its offspring, an adolescent and a calf, wandering in tandem in the vicinity, apparently confused and traumatised.
I suspect that this massive anti-poaching effort is a holding operation, barely keeping the rate of loss of rhino and elephant in rough equilibrium with the growth in populations while the demand in the East is to be addressed. I have no data to back up this assumption, but it is clear that the markets must be targeted and destroyed, or Africa’s megafauna will disappear forever.
Despite the military “edge”, the Kruger wilderness trails remain special, immersive experiences. As before, the elephants in the vicinity regard the trails camp’s perimeter fence as a minor obstacle and were regularly to be found browsing between the huts. On one lazy afternoon I dozed off while watching them about 30 m away at the waterhole, to wake up and find a large bull silently munching away behind me. That tends to raise the pulse. As explained to us on our first wilderness trail back in the nineties – also at Wolhuter – the fence is there to keep the humans in – and not to keep the wildlife out.