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The battle to save Kruger's rhinos

Rhinos in South Africa, and the Kruger National Park in particular are under siege, with 393 poached in 2015 so far. EWN’s Vumani Mkhize reports.

San Parks officials sedate a male white rhino before translocating it to a safer area, Wednesday 5 August 2015. Picture: Vumani Mkhize/EWN.

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK - Imagine a world that only has the Big Four instead of the Big Five; that's a very distinct and somewhat harrowing possibility if rhino poaching continues at the current rate.

With a population of around 8,000, the Kruger National Park is home to most of the world's horned giants, but these animals are under siege from a relentless tide of rifle-wielding poachers, mainly from neighbouring Mozambique.

Last year up to 4,300 poachers entered the Kruger with the express aim of killing rhino for their valuable horns. 1,215 rhino were slaughtered in 2014 and this year's depressing figure already tops four hundred.

Poaching is driven by the illegal trade in rhino horn, and the burgeoning market in Asian countries such as China and Vietnam has driven prices sky high.

At $60,000 kilogram, rhino horn is the most expensive commodity in the world at moment, more pricey than platinum and gold. At such prices, the incentive is high for desperate poachers to keep killing rhino, despite the fact that they only receive a fraction of the horn's value, with most of the proceeds taken by shadowy organised crime syndicates.

Members of the Kruger National Park veterinary services sedate a large male white rhino before translocating it to a safer area. Picture: Vumani Mkhize/EWN.

Up to 12 groups of poachers with an average size of three armed men are said to be in the park at any given time.

Chief of staff for special projects at Kruger National Park, Ken Maggs, fears for the safety of his field rangers. "Poachers are not scared of wild animals, they continue regardless and they are fearless. With so many poachers in the park, it's inevitable that we will lose one of our rangers".

Maggs, who has been with San Parks for nearly 30 years, believes in an anti-poaching grand strategy. This strategy involves the parks and local communities working together in rooting out perpetrators. Intelligence gathering is also at the forefront of the plan. "We want to be more pro-active instead of reactive.We need to apprehend these guys before they kill rhino in the park," says Maggs.

To many conservationists, the current slaughter demands more than just strategies to deal with the poaching crisis. The recent introduction of the K9 unit, which uses highly trained sniffer dogs to assist rangers pursue elusive poachers in difficult terrain, is a more tangible means of fighting this scourge.

Resident dog master Johan De Beer is responsible for training the dogs in the unit.

A K9 unit field ranger at the Kruger National Park during an anti-poaching demonstration of using dogs to sniff out poachers. Picture: Vumani Mkhize/EWN.

"We train the dogs specifically to follow humans and not to be distracted by the various smells in the bush. We teach the dogs not to follow animal scents, but to keep tracking human scents."

Despite all these efforts, the endless stream of poachers still manages to kill at least one rhino a day in the park. The sight of a rhino carcass with a part of its face hacked off is a sad thing to see out in the veld and a grisly indication of what will happen to the rest of Africa's rhinos if conservation efforts are not escalated.

A dead juvenile rhino, killed by desperate poachers who did not want to leave the Kruger National Park empty handed. Picture: Vumani Mkhize/EWN.