South Africa has 500 reasons not to poach in the Kruger

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Established in 1898, the Kruger National Park (KNP) in South Africa encompasses over 7,523 sq. mi of area, making it one of the largest game reserves in the world. To put that size in reference, it’s larger than Connecticut and just a tad bit smaller than New Jersey. It also shares a huge, over 200-mile long border with the troubled country of Mozambique, and one of that country's former presidents contends that as many as 500 unfortunate Mozambican poachers have been zapped by the KNP's hard-charging ranger force in the past five years.

“It worries me that quite a large number of Mozambicans killed in Kruger Park in poaching activities,” says former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano. “Each of these Mozambicans dead means more poverty for his family, because they can no longer count on him to fight for better living conditions."

If Chissano's politics sound curious, keep in mind he was one of the founding members of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), which kicked the Portuguese out in a bloody insurgency in the 1970s then, with the help of Moscow, fought an extended 16-year war against South African-backed, anti-Marxist rebels. Therefore, it is safe to say Mr. Chissano may have an axe to grind.

Rememember the Nicholas Cage film "Merchant of Death"? Well the film was loosely based on the life of Viktor Bout, and the first time Bout left the Soviet Union at age 20 was as an adviser to FRELIMO in Mozambique. Just for reference.

While exact figures killed in the on-going war between Mozambique poacher groups (there are estimated to be as many as 15 large gangs operating in the park or its periphery at any given time) and the 220-member Ranger force, led by Major General (RET) Johan Jooste, there were at least two poachers killed in a gun fight in January and another two in July as well as allegations of some "rough handing" by those captured alive .

To take the poacher war into perspective, keep in mind that the Ranger force is equipped with surplus SANDF rifles and shotguns, overstretched, and underfunded. To help mitigate this, the government has started shipping rhino out of the park to other, more secure areas away from the border, is using border sensors to help notify rangers of unauthorized movement along the park edge, purchased a few drones to provide some eyes in the sky, and is working on a border fence.

The stakes are high, as more than half of the country's 20,000 rhinos are located inside the park, the largest collection in the world. With rhino horn fetching $35,000 a pound, and the average per capita income of Mozambique hovering about $600 a year, you see the incentive to grab a machete, pick up a used AK-47 which can be had for about $100 in the country (the country’s flag actually has an AK-47 ON it!), and head over the border with ten of your friends.

In May 2014, South Africa signed a cross-border hot pursuit agreement with Mozambique, which allows each country the right to continue to chase suspected perpetrators across the line. To help augment the Rangers, the South African Police Service and the military is also sending units into the bush.

"The battle between rangers and poachers is an ongoing one. Despite the involvement of the police, game rangers are often the first to come across these intruders and confront these well-armed poachers. The results of these encounters are often fatal - at the disadvantage of the game reserves and the war against rhino poaching," reads a notice on the Kruger's webpage.

In 2012, the South African National Park service estimated they were losing three rhino a week to poachers. After the implementation of the expanded patrols and hot pursuit agreements, this dropped to two per week in 2013 while arrests dropped during the same time from a high of 82 in 2011 to just 24 two years later. However, the poachers returned with a vengeance so far this year.

In an August release from SANParks, since the start of 2015 a total of 223 suspected poachers have been arrested in the country; of which 129 were arrested in the Kruger National Park.

“This is a clear indication that resilience and dedication pays off… we are grateful that no lives were lost," says Minister of Environmental Affairs, Mrs. Edna Molewa, who congratulated rangers on taking eight suspected poachers into custody after a brief gun fight that left one injured. Two hunting rifles, silencers, ammunition and other poaching equipment were confiscated.

As for the report of 500 Mozambicans given the hard goodbye from South African Rangers, "It's highly overinflated," Paul Daphne, a spokesman for South Africa's national parks service, said.

Nevertheless, he declined to provide a figure.

Let’s just call it a good start.