Beyond its exceptional beauty, Kruger National Park is on the ropes and hurting

The Kruger National Park has a major rhino-poaching crisis, but that’s just one of many mounting problems — and it’s extremely worrying.

Crags of ancient rock and twisting rivers, 1,000-year-old trees and a rug of bushveld the size of Israel… it’s been part of South Africa’s DNA for generations. And a way of life.

Load the car, strap the kids into the back seat and head for the Lowveld where the roads kick dust, thorn trees tangle and the bush smells of animals and earth.

Finally, you’re through the gates: Crocodile Bridge, Orpen or further north to where elephants congregate in their hundreds: Punda Maria, Pafuri. In January, the morning blisters but that’s okay because you’re in Kruger and there could be lions around the corner. It doesn’t get better than that.

But just beyond the fence it’s a different story. Adolescents cluster over a cooking pot in a dismal room with no windows. Both parents are recently dead, maybe from Covid-19 or Aids, and none has a job. For the desperate youngsters, a zebra is not a moment of black and white dazzle, something to photograph, it’s the possibility of something to eat.

When they look through the fence at the animals inside, they represent sustenance. There are impala and bushbuck to snare, duiker to trap. But first prize is rhinos with horns that will bring enough money to feed a family all year.

More than two million poor people live up against the park’s border. In Bushbuckridge youth unemployment stands at a staggering 60%. With hungry bellies, their days are often about pure survival. Many are from Mozambique on the other side of Kruger which is sandwiched between the two countries.

On both sides of the border there are those who feel the park is land stolen from their forebears during apartheid for exclusive white hunting and leisure. Park outreach programmes notwithstanding, 73% of surrounding residents have never been inside Kruger. Without any interest or loyalty, the youngsters round the fire are ready for something, anything.

So, when poachers roll in along potholed roads in their expensive new 4x4s with Rolexes on their wrists and money to spend on dishing out food or paying rental arrears, how could they not be seen as heroes? Bushbuckridge and the communities that span the length of the Kruger fence are fertile ground for the swaggering “middlemen” of the poaching syndicates.

International crime syndicates are targeting the park with up to seven poaching groups operating daily. In seven years from 2014 there were 19,154 logged poacher incursions, an average of 2,736 a year. You’d think that would demand greater ranger presence, but there are presently 82 unfilled ranger posts and poorly paid rangers are being lured by syndicate cash.

That’s not difficult. Sophisticated, organised crime syndicates with deep pockets are able to coax information via a “drop-off” from some staff. Inside the park, it must be so hard for employees to resist the temptation of tip-off money.

To read the full article by Daily Maverick, please click the button below: