The general and the rhino war.

By June 22, 2022Editorial

Rhino. © Sherrod Photography/Shutterstock

The stench was overpowering. I was in shock and I could tell that the others with me were watching the brave general, looking for a reaction. I know the smell of death, but I had smelled nothing like this before. It was a pungent, repulsive, clinging and evil smell that matched my mood right then. How futile, was all I could think. Why have you killed these animals?

These were some of the general’s thoughts and feelings at the first rhino-poaching crime scene he witnessed soon after his appointment, in 2012, as the Kruger National Park’s chief ranger. It was a controversial appointment, to say the least, and it certainly didn’t please many within SANPark’s management hierarchy. Nor did it find favor with the police and army contingents in the park at the time. I suppose this was to be expected: the retired senior army man had a professional life stretching far back to the height of the country’s apartheid regime, and he was headhunted and appointed at the direct instigation of SANParks’ then CEO, Dr. David Mabunda, in the process bypassing the organization’s standard employment protocols.

Mabunda appointed Jooste on a five-year contract to transform Kruger’s ranger force into a paramilitary unit to staunch the killing of rhinos for their horns which in 2012 was already, and rapidly, escalating further out of control. His recently published bookRhino War—A General’s Bold Strategy in the Kruger National Park—is a chronology of his five-year attempt to do so. Penned with the help of writer Tony Park, the book’s nearly 300 pages pass in a flash as politics, professional resentments, suspicion and intrigue, dedication to the task, and the hard work of good men and women, intertwine and unfold in an extraordinary tale. 

Jooste soon answers his own question when he reflects: “Again I surveyed the carnage, trying to make sense of it. This was what happened when greed meets poverty. Rhino horn worth $65,000 per kilogram in South East Asia at the time, and a good-sized set of horns from one animal could weigh in at six to nine kilos. Even though the poachers would only get a fraction of that, there was no question of why they were risking encounters with dangerous wildlife and rangers to kill these animals.”

In no uncertain terms, Jooste faced a steep, uphill battle. His “troops” were tired, demoralized, poorly trained, lacking discipline, and poorly supported. They were also ill-equipped for a job that, in a matter of two years, had changed from ecosystem management, with a bit of policing and protection thrown in, to what was tantamount to fighting a cross-border guerilla war. By far, the greater number of poachers were well-armed insurgents crossing, with impunity, the largely undefended, almost 220-mile eastern border with neighboring Mozambique. 

SANParks and Kruger were woefully unprepared for the struggle; not even the boots and uniforms of their front-line defenders were up to scratch. The poor quality of their clothes might have seemed a small thing. However, for the rangers, it was yet another signal that while their superiors spoke of the importance of their work, the reality revealed a complete lack of regard for people expected to lay down their lives if necessary to protect a species of wild mammal.

The general promised to change things. He would get proper uniforms for them and appropriate housing to replace shabby old tents. Still, at the same time, the rangers’ lackadaisical attitude perplexed and infuriated him—dirty, untidy quarters, poorly maintained weapons, and scant respect for senior personnel were anathema to the military man. But when he gave a section ranger a dressing down in this regard, the immediate pushback was: “But this is not the army, General.”

The ranger was right, of course, and to his credit, Jooste realized this. “I had to ease the corps into change, not bully them. What I wanted was for them to be able to do their job to the best of their ability and, whether they liked it or not, their job had changed.” He held a joint planning session with the regional rangers and senior staff, inviting their views and concerns. Slowly a plan evolved to create what was needed—a paramilitary force capable of defeating poachers. The emphasis, however, was on the term “para.” Conventional military organization into platoons, companies and brigades with serious heavy weaponry, including machine guns and artillery was not the answer. Instead, it lay in small, two-man units, highly skilled in bushcraft and survival, who could outmaneuver the poaching teams, themselves wily, mobile, and bush savvy. The one advantage that Jooste did have over the poachers was an air support team, including fixed-wing and helicopter craft.

Jooste then set about the logistics. Rangers were moved from the north to the south of the park, where an Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ) had been established to secure the dense rhino population in that region. A joint command center was set up and a system set in place to gather and interpret the intelligence that would be absolutely vital if anything near a victory over the poachers was to be achieved. His nagging demands of the SANParks’ bureaucracy won him few friends, but Mabunda stood by his man and, in the main, the general got what he wanted. This included contracting a few of his (white) specialist ex-army colleagues, which raised more than a few eyebrows in SANParks’ corridors of power back in Pretoria. 

Technology would be key in the fight, but rather than simply barrel ahead with all that was on offer, Jooste decided that a full and proper assessment of all the options would be crucial. Kruger’s redoubtable group of honorary rangers came to the fore and raised the funding for this expensive exercise. The general reflected: “Industry had been awakened and had been bombarding the park with solutions … As much as I believed in technology as part of the solution, I had to be careful to avoid being seduced by it. The golden rule was to make sure we knew what we needed before we fell into the trap of buying what we needed.”

As the training regime was put in place, Jooste began to see improvements in operational efficiency. He now had oversight of what was happening throughout the park, and resources could be directed speedily to where they were most needed. Lines of communication even began to open up with Kruger’s conservation counterparts across the border in Mozambique. But still, the number of rhinos being killed continued to rise.

Also on the rise was the assessment of the “war chest” needed to fight the poaching syndicates effectively. SANParks’ pockets weren’t very deep, and there was limited enthusiasm for much of a top-up from the central government, itself strapped for cash. Then, out of the blue, Jooste received an email. “Dear General Jooste, I would like to make contact with you when I am next in South Africa, the sender wrote. It was short and to the point, not much more in the body of the message, but it was the name that leapt out at me… Howard G Buffet.”

It transpired that the billionaire American philanthropist was not only willing to fund the application not only of existing technology but also its research, as long as it could be applied on a major scale to benefit conservation.” He not only agreed to the sum of $13 million asked for but added: “You didn’t ask for a helicopter, but I’m giving you one. I’m giving you $17 million.” Soon after that, Buffet upped his offer to $23 million. “I want you to trial an aerostat as well,” he said, explaining the additional amount. (Tethered aerostats—helium-filled balloons held in position high overhead with ground anchored cables—are cost-effective platforms for aerial surveillance and communication.) 

Buffet’s contribution was a massive contribution to the effort, an almost unimaginable one translated into South African currency, and it was soon being put to good use. The gift was received with great fanfare but not universally within Sanparks’ executive ranks. Buffet’s generosity was based on his personal regard for Jooste—to whom he would later say, “I think you need another helicopter. Buy one and send me the bill”—and this rankled with those who didn’t like being beholden to a rich American who made it clear that his largesse would only be in place as long as Jooste, the white ex-apartheid general, remained at the helm. In a way, it perversely weakened Jooste’s position within SANParks rather than strengthening it. Later, sadly, the slow, tedious bureaucratic processes within the organization and its seeming inability to produce timeous, accurate reporting regarding the disbursement of funds began to irritate Buffet, souring the relationship and eventually leading to the withdrawal of his support. Despite this, Buffet and Jooste remained on good terms.

Another thorn in the side of Jooste’s efforts was the problematic relationship with Kruger’s military and SAPS (police) contingents. Jooste had a good relationship with the police commander, but at one stage, there was a backlog of about 200 criminal investigations, and the situation was getting worse. Eventually, this news reached parliament. Questions and accusations were traded, increasing tensions between departments and colleagues. It also didn’t help when police claimed the kudos for arrests when it was actually the rangers that had done the work. Making matters worse, Jooste offered his investigators to help with crime-scene investigations (essentially a police responsibility). What transpired, though, was that the ranger team proved so good at the job that the police “abdicated virtually all responsibility for this crucial part of the law enforcement process.” The one police unit that had proved very effective for a few months was their elite tactical Special Task Force, and Jooste wanted them back. The specialist unit was keen to return and was on their way when commanded to turn round and go home. “It seemed the task force and I had fallen foul of internal police politics.” Jooste tersely observed.

Adding to Jooste’s difficulties, Mabunda was no longer at the helm of SANParks, and senior people in the organization had clearly begun gunning for him. “Members of Exco feel you’re acting outside your mandate in pursuit of corruption after integrity testing,” he was told. Integrity testing was the euphuism for the polygraph testing of Kruger staff. From the outset, Jooste had insisted on this intervention and was the first to subject himself to the process. It was not popular.

Fighting poaching is uncompromising and harsh, but Jooste’s account is leavened with human asides. One of these centers on the question of what happens to the calf of a female rhino when she is slaughtered by a poacher? Sadly, in the early stages of the poaching onslaught, it simply died in the bush, often from exhaustion, hunger, and dehydration—a convenient meal for predators and scavengers. There was no facility to care for orphans. But that changed. The loss of these babies was unacceptable to the rangers, and Petronel Niewoudt and her Care for the Wild stepped into the breach. In 2014 she took in her first rhino orphan from Kruger. Petronel is an extraordinary human being. Jooste quotes her: “I remember when they [SANParks] asked me to take the orphans from the Kruger. I was so deeply humbled. The enormity of the responsibility was certainly not lost on me. I took a moment just to breathe and acknowledge the responsibility I was about to undertake, not just to save the lives of the rescued orphans, but to safeguard the future of the species. Everything in my life had led to this moment. Not for one second did I hesitate or look back. It was my calling and I had faith.”

Many rangers have a strong compassion for the animals in their care. These are men and women who face danger daily. Life in the bush is not for the fainthearted or the squeamish, and the possibility of physical harm is a constant companion. Desperate poachers won’t hesitate to fire at their pursuers, but the rangers are forbidden to fire first. Yet the drive to protect and save is so strong that even in the most adverse of circumstances, rangers will do their best to preserve life, even when that life is a baby rhino.

One account illustrates this. A baby rhino orphan was taken from the crime scene, wrapped in a blanket, bundled into the helicopter, and airlifted to Care for the Wild. Jooste’s narrative follows: “En route, the little rhino, a male, stopped breathing. The veterinarian did her best to revive the tiny fellow, starting CPR, pushing down on his breast as a doctor would do to a human patient. It was no good. Realising the calf had died, they landed in the veld to remove the carcass from the chopper. Feeling a mixture of rage, frustration and deep sadness, Don [Don English is one of Kruger’s legendary senior rangers] hauled the lifeless animal from the back of the helicopter, set it down on the ground and started thumping its little chest.” Miraculously, the infant rhino started breathing, was loaded back into the chopper and the journey to Care for the Wild continued. He survived and was named “Don” after his savior.

It is sometimes too easy to see the rhino poaching war as “good rangers” fighting “bad poachers.” But this is too simplistic. Jooste understands his brief—to get the better of the poaching gangs and to bring the number of animals killed down to as close to zero as possible. Yet he also understands the reality of poaching is a complex, seemingly unravellable tangle of poverty versus privilege. Lingering colonial and apartheid injustices and smoldering resentment against a Kruger seen as a playground of the rich are all part of the mix. For many, it is a place of no relevance other than a denied resource for the communities that crush up against its western and eastern flanks. Often rangers and poachers are members of the same villages, direct family even. Here, poachers are sometimes seen as the heroes and the rangers as sell-outs. Even the existence of neighboring South Africa and Mozambique are accidents of colonial history. This intertwined socio-political mess is a constantly appearing thread that weaves its way throughout the book.

Yes, the numbers of rhinos did level and then start to dip after the annus horribilis of 2014, but the violent deaths continue in South Africa at a rate of more than one a day. And yes, there are now far fewer killings in Kruger, but the population there has fallen by two-thirds. Now there is a rise in poaching elsewhere in the region, especially in South Africa’s other rhino stronghold, KwaZulu Natal. The war continues.

Jooste concludes: “Poaching, whatever the tactics, and the international wildlife trade will remain part of the African conservation scene. It is not a question of ‘if’, but rather ‘how’ we deal with it. The allocation of resources will always be an issue simply because this noble work competes with many other law-enforcement challenges and more popular demands. The only way forward is to optimise the use of available resources to bring better results through sustainable action and, one day, gain the upper hand in combatting environmental crime and corruption.

“Even though we are now better at protecting rhinos than we were in 2012, we still need to think big.”

General Johan Jooste’s Rhino War is a story told with sensitivity and modesty, speaking of his diligence and commitment to the cause. It is a welcome and much-needed chapter in our conservation history, a volume to read alongside John Hanks’ Operation Lock and the War on Rhino Poaching and Julian Rademeyer’s Killing for Profit – Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade. And while you’re at it, listen to Georgina Savage’s intriguing and well-made podcast series The Invisible Hand.