Courage and grit: one man’s quest to save SA’s rhino

Review: Vivien Horler

Rhino War – A general’s bold strategy in the Kruger National Park, by Johan Jooste with Tony Park (Macmillan)

News of the death of Timbavati head ranger Anton Mzimba on Tuesday resonated more with me than it might have had I not just finished this book.

Mzimba, described as a rhino warrior who had worked at Timbavati for 25 years, was shot outside his home in Acornhoek, Mpumalanga. Tributes poured in, including from the UK’s Prince William, and Helping Rhinos, a UK and US-based rhino charity.

A statement from Timbavati said: “Those …working with him will know how he dedicated his life to what he believed in, fighting for a species which has no voice of its own.”

Having read of Johan Jooste’s fight against rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park, I am sure he is devastated by the news.

Major General Jooste served with the old SADF on the Border and then with the SANDF after 1994, before retiring from the military to go into business. But in late 2012, as he was nearing 60, he was approached by SANParks to “paramilitarise” the rangers in the Kruger Park.

The problem was the onslaught on rhino. By December 2012 a total of 618 rhinos had been killed that year in SA, about half of them in Kruger. And this figure did not include the babies who either starved or were killed by hyenas when the poachers killed their mothers.

Jooste writes: “From the air-conditioned comfort of the family car, or the elevated perch of a breezy, open game viewer, Kruger is paradise. On foot, tracking a man who is prepared to kill to defend his ill-gotten prize, it is hell.

“Baking hot, with temperatures exceeding 40deg in the day in summer, and freezing cold on a moonlit night in the middle of winter, rangers also had to contend not only with snakes… but also big game, torrential rain, thorn bushes, crocodile-infested rivers, malaria, and the constant threat of being shot at by a poacher.”

Full moons meant more poachers, as did the run-up to Christmas – it turns out poachers, like everyone else, need a bit of extra money then.

At the time of Jooste’s appointment as Chief Ranger of Kruger the main threat to SA’s rhino was coming from Mozambique. Jooste did not believe that referring to the poaching threat as a war was overstating the case.

He told the media: “It is a fact that South Africa, a sovereign country, is under attack from armed foreign nationals… This should be seen as a declaration of war against SA by armed foreign criminals. We are going to take the war to these armed bandits and we aim to win it.”

They certainly made impressive strides. Even though increasing numbers of poachers were detected in the park over the forthcoming years, the numbers of dead rhino began to fall. In 2014 it was 827, in 2015 it was 826, it was 504 in 2017, a total of 328 in 2019 and 247 in 2020. Now annual births are exceeding deaths, giving the beleaguered animals some breathing room.

Ideally rangers – not to be confused with park guides – were employed to watch the animals, mend fences, eradicate alien plants, work the gates and generally keep the park going. But by the early years of this century they were devoting something like 90% of their time to fighting off poachers.

When he arrived at Kruger in 2013 Jooste faced a dysfunctional ranger force. There were threats of a strike, and morale was low – they didn’t have proper uniforms, wages, equipment or decent places to live.

At his initial briefing, Jooste told SANParks bosses that as rangers worked alongside the police and military as well as security from private reserves next door to the park, they would need to set up a JOC for clear lines of command and control.

“What’s a JOC?” asked the bosses. Jooste writes: “How, I wondered, could they even begin to target a problem of armed incursions into a national park without a joint operations centre?”

The challenge was overwhelming. Around 2013 Jooste realised the number of firefights with poachers in the park was greater per year than the number of contacts at the height of the Border War in Angola and Namibia.

There were a host of obstacles to face, including a lack of equipment, not enough air support – remember Kruger is the size of a small country – and a shortage of money. But Jooste applied a dictum which had worked for him before: “Think big, start small and act now,” and he began chipping away.

One enormous source of support was Howard Buffett, son of the businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett. Jooste forged links with him and he poured millions of rands into the park. But in the end the relationship between Buffett and SANParks (but not between Buffett and Jooste) soured, because of suspicion and excessive red tape.

However, before this happened and thanks also to a relationship with the CSIR, Jooste was able to secure additional aircraft, a form of radar, night-vision goggles, better rifles and vehicles, body armour, drones, and other vital equipment.

In addition to hi-tech infrastructure, dogs and handlers were introduced and within three years had been involved in about 90% of all arrests in Kruger. (This was despite the fact staff at Kruger could not have pets, and Jooste and his wife Arina had to leave their beloved Jack Russell Jonty at home in Pretoria when they settled in Skukuza.)

Jooste forged relationships with outside organisations including a local college that drew up modules for ranger training in an array of areas including securing a crime scene, and Care for Wild, a rhino orphanage.

Originally orphaned rhinos had been left to die, but one day a baby rhino stumbled out of the bush, charming tourists who stopped their cars to watch. But soon it became clear something was wrong. No mother came lumbering along behind, and then the calf started behaving oddly, nuzzling up to a huge grey sedan, “perhaps mistaking its bulk for its mother”.

Eventually the rangers were alerted, the baby was darted and helicoptered away to safety, thanks to the efforts of Care for Wild, a rescue and rehab centre in Barberton in Mpumalanga.

Between dealing with the bureaucrats of SANParks, the shortage of money, the liberals who believed rangers should stick to their environmental jobs, the human rights groups who were unhappy at action against poachers, and the resentment felt by the police and military at Jooste’s position and the rangers’ successes, being Chief Ranger was not an easy job.

It was also dangerous. One day Jooste was in a helicopter with SANParks CEO Fundisile Mketini, the pilot, a ranger and a new member of the SANParks board on an orientation flight, when they were radioed of a group of poachers near Pretoriuskop.

There was no time to drop off Mketini or the new board member; eight minutes later those in the chopper spotted the three poachers hiding in the bush. With the rangers on the ground closing in, the poachers scattered, with one raising his rifle and firing at the chopper.

The ranger aboard fired back and the poacher dropped his rifle and ran. Then he put up his hands and the chopper landed. But just before he could be arrested, he ducked under the tail boom and fled into the bush again.

The pilot took off and dropped the ranger just ahead of the fleeing poacher. He was arrested, and eventually sentenced to 37 years in prison for charges including attempted murder.

But despite his efforts to protect rhino, Jooste is aware of the toxic mix of poverty and greed, and how young men are desperate to help their destitute families.

Over the years, as a result of the efforts of Jooste and his team, poachers changed their modus operandi. First they moved their area of operations, resulting in new places being targeted. And then they came up with a new plan.

“In response to our efforts in the bush, poachers switched their tactics from speculative night-time incursions into the park to a more sophisticated, perhaps even more evil, campaign of targeting, intimidating and bribing rangers. They had come to realise that the only way to get into – and, more importantly, out of – [the park] was to do so with the aid of someone on the inside.”

In a major disappointment for Jooste, a prize-winning ranger he believed could have become the park’s Chief Ranger was arrested for poaching.

Meanwhile the lives of some of those who stood resolutely against the poachers, like Anton Mzimba, have been cut short.

It is truly a war. And this is an important book.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *