Elephant poaching: Govt needs to act now

Melanie Verwoerd

Not many people get to sit next to a 25-year-old wild elephant bull. I did last week. He was heavily sedated, yet the impact on me was profound. I touched his soft trunk and had to step back when he let out a deep sigh, which had the force of a mini-South Easter. He was simply majestic. But it was the noise of his breathing that really got to me. It takes a lot of air to fill the lungs of a seven-ton mammal. Every time he breathed in the earth vibrated from the rumbling sound, and when he breathed out the plants around him bent before the gale. It was simply, well, breathtaking.

The next day, I stood next to another elephant lying on the ground. But this time he was not sedated in order to collect DNA samples. This time he was dead. His face completely hacked away. Maggots all over him. Blood pouring  from his wounds. The stench caused us all to gag. The violent nature of his wounds was awful, but it was the vulnerability of his wrinkled feet, his soft ears and his folded knees that pained me the most.

This young male was one of 42 elephants killed for their tusks in the Kruger National Park in the last 12 months. Since the 1980s there had been virtually no poaching of elephants in the Kruger, but something has changed since last year; today the  park wardens are fearful that they are about to face a similar scenario with elephants as they have with rhinos in recent years. Rhinos have been pushed to the brink of extinction in a very short time, and even though the elephant population is still very big  in the Kruger, (17000 at the last count), the scientists know how quickly that can decline to critical numbers.

Ironically, it seems that as it becomes harder to kill the rhinos - because of fewer numbers and  greater success in anti-poaching strategies - the poachers have turned their attention to elephants. They cross the border from Mozambique in the east, and to a lesser extent from Zimbabwe in the north. They come at night in groups of four to hunt the animals. They choose young male bulls because they are usually on their own and not part of a herd. Also their tusks are smaller than the older bulls and thus easier to carry.

The elephants rarely stand a chance against the poachers' powerful rifles, then the slow process of hacking out the tusks begins. Apparently it takes about 90 minutes. The tusks are then carried back across the border and handed over to middle men, who sell them to others, either as part payment for drugs or directly to the Far East where the tusks are used for trinkets, stamps and aphrodisiacs. Sadly, there have also been cases where carcasses have been poisoned, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of vultures and even lions. These animals' body parts are sold for muti.

Carrying the tusks back is slow and heavy work – a tusk weighs between 45kg and 75kg. So often game rangers are able to pick up the spoor of the poachers. But this is where the problems start.

When I was a Member of Parliament in the early 2000s, I was involved in establishing the cross-frontier parks. The idea was to lower border fences so that elephants could follow their historical migration patterns. This would ensure that they would not overgraze any particular piece of nature. It was, and remains, a wonderful and beautiful ideal. But it seems to have had unintended consequences – largely due to a lack of coordination between different government departments of the three countries.

If, for example, the South African game rangers are following a poacher heading back to Mozambique and they reach the border, they have to stop and wait for their Mozambican counterparts to join them. But because of intelligence regulations, they are not allowed to use the same radio frequency, and there is very little cell phone reception. So the rangers from both sides of the border have to rely on a satellite phone, which is not always available. There is also little capacity and infrastructure on the Mozambique side, and with few roads it takes them a long time to get to the border. Moreover, neither side can bring their weapons across the border because of South African Revenue Service regulations.

When you stand at the non-existing border line, it is clear how ludicrous the situation is and why the game rangers are so frustrated. As Billy Swanepoel, from the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, told me: "We make an agreement as nature conservation, but nobody makes agreements with the military and the police." And so the elephants die because basic bureaucratic arrangements haven't been sorted out.

The rangers on the Kruger side want the border fence to be restored until these issues are resolved and the poaching brought under control once more. As much as I would love to see the trans-frontier park dream become a reality, I know we have to listen to these guys. They are there day in and day out and the personal toll the poaching is taking on them is huge.

These men are as tough as they come. They have spent decades in the bush and fear very little. When I asked one of them how it feels when they get to a scene where an elephant is lying bleeding with his face hacked off, he first tries to answer me professionally. "Well you survey the scene, you establish if there was poison and you do your job," he says. "But then...at night...it stays with you..." and suddenly this middle-aged man can't continue. His eyes well up and he starts to cry. Embarrassed, he walks away from me, towards the rotting carcass behind us.

The government needs to act immediately, and the public need to put pressure on them to do so before it is too late. We simply cannot see another genocide of such a magnificent animal species on our watch.

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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