Our Burning Planet


Rhino War: Military man recalls bureaucratic minefields in battle against SA’s poaching scourge

Rhino War: Military man recalls bureaucratic minefields in battle against SA’s poaching scourge

Johan Jooste, a retired major-general, was appointed commanding officer: special projects at SANParks in 2012. His remit was to reduce the number of rhinos being poached for their horns by adopting a military approach. In ‘Rhino War’ he makes a credible case that things would have been worse without this intervention, although the jury remains out on its overall effectiveness.

This book is a good primer for a layperson with an interest in the rhino poaching issue while offering fresh insights to those who have been more immersed in the topic. This reviewer came away with newfound admiration for Jooste, an ex-soldier who served in the military under apartheid and the new democratic dispensation. The task he assumed in 2012 was daunting, and he tackled it with gusto. 

In Rhino War, co-authored with the popular Australian novelist Tony Park, Jooste pulls no punches in his criticism of the political and bureaucratic minefields he needed to navigate to pursue the war on poaching. This effort was often undermined by the ongoing failure of the South African state, but Jooste and the brave rangers under his watch cannot be faulted for that. 

From the start, Jooste was confronted with bureaucratic bungling. Uniforms for the rangers would be delivered haphazardly and the quality was shoddy, the green colour fading after just three washes. What passed for boots were made from plastic. 

“I was almost speechless,” Jooste writes about his first conversations with rangers about this shabby state of affairs. Turning this ship around would require getting simple basics right. 

Jooste’s initiatives, such as bringing Vietnamese police officers to survey poaching scenes, would trigger indignation higher up the political chain. He managed to get funding from the Howard G Buffett Foundation for helicopters and hi-tech equipment, but generous donor funding would also hit walls.

“… there were difficulties when a dynamic businessman, supported by a justifiably demanding foundation, came up against the processes and procedures of a national parks bureaucracy bound by the rules of state procurement policies and, quite frankly, not used to doing anything with a great sense of urgency”, Jooste writes. “Buffett’s foundation demanded – rightly so – regular, detailed updates on how the money was being spent… To be fair to SANParks, they may not have had the capacity to deal with this… ” 

Read in Daily Maverick: “SA rhino translocation lands Mozambican national park Big Five status

He writes with bitterness about the abrupt decision in 2014 to terminate the intelligence-gathering services of “Pathfinder”, a private security company whose work was credited with providing the police with information that led to the arrest of criminals linked to poaching syndicates and Chinese triad gangs. But Pathfinder’s alleged links to the US raised suspicions, in Jooste’s view, with some in the ANC who remained stuck in the Cold War past. 

Jooste retains respect for the late Edna Molewa, the former environment minister, whom he depicts as hard-working and devoted to the cause. This reviewer interviewed Molewa several times and always came away with the impression that she had great attention to detail and a grasp on her portfolio that was firmer than that of many of her colleagues.  

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There are hilarious anecdotes about drone manufacturers who constantly badgered Jooste to give their product a try. One suffered the indignity of a literal meltdown as the glue that held the contraption together melted under the African sun! Beyond such fiascos, the drones that SANParks could afford – with payloads of no more than 2kg – had limited utility in the African bush. 

Jooste has little time for the “armchair” experts who called on social media for policies such as shoot-to-kill or to allow hot pursuits into Mozambique, where many of the poachers originated. Others insisted the entire fence be re-erected along Kruger’s eastern boundary. 

“What any military person would have explained to such ‘strategists’ was that any obstacle, such as a fence, was no good on its own – it needed to be covered by fire and observation. I had neither the manpower nor the technology to cover the 350km of border with Mozambique, let alone Kruger’s total perimeter of 1,000km,” Jooste notes.   

Read in Daily Maverick: “Rhino poaching declines in Africa, but white rhino in Kruger Park hardest hit

He somewhat begrudgingly acknowledges that one of the reasons poaching in terms of sheer numbers has fallen from the worst of the carnage is related to the decline in the population. Still, Jooste does make a credible case that things would have been worse without the concerted intervention that he led. The poaching peak was in 2014, when 1,215 rhinos were known to have been slain for their horns in South Africa. The subsequent decline is probably attributable to the efforts on the ground as well as the falling population. If there are fewer rhinos in a place the size of Kruger, then there are simply fewer poaching opportunities.  

Jooste curiously does not have a lot to say about the private sector or the fact that most of South Africa’s rhinos are now in private hands. The bottom line on that front is that the private sector has done a far better job of protecting its rhinos against the backdrop of South Africa’s failing state. 

Read in Daily Maverick: “Rhino poaching on the rise, KZN focus of carnage while private sector turns the tide

Read in Daily Maverick: “259 rhino killed this year as poachers shift focus from Kruger to KZN and private game reserves

KwaZulu-Natal has now become the new poaching hotspot as the provincial conservation authority, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, withers on the rotting vines of ANC-inspired corruption and incompetence. As Tony Carnie has chronicled in this publication, repeated escapes of dangerous wildlife from the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve have sparked human-wildlife conflict and social unrest. A fence around a wildlife sanctuary is not just there to keep poachers out. It is also there to protect rural residents from the prehistoric terror of megafauna attack.  

The book is readable in an easygoing way, which is no doubt a tribute to the penmanship of its co-author, Park, the author of several thrillers linked to wildlife issues in southern Africa, a few of which this correspondent has enjoyed and reviewed before. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

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