by Fortunate M. Phaka & Darian Hall
More than seven years into the current poaching crisis and well over 3000 poached rhinos later Kruger National Park should be one of the most well protected reserves in South Africa. Being one of the most popular self-drive safari destinations in Africa should make Kruger a well-patrolled reserve to ensure that visitors adhere to the rules. The sad truth is that Kruger is a far cry from the fortress it should be. This became apparent after spending 4 days and driving over 30 hours in the reserve’s southern section. Kruger’s security component is too understaffed and underfunded to effectively police the reserve. Before we even considered the anti-poaching aspect of the reserve’s security we noticed a lack in visible policing. Since the park allows self-drive safaris we expected a strong element of visible policing to prevent visitors from transgressing the reserve’s regulations. Throughout our visit we witnessed more transgressions than we saw patrol vehicles. During the four days spent in the reserve we only came across three official vehicles and these were not on patrol as they were transporting anti-poaching rangers between shifts. As encouraging as it is to see anti-poaching teams active during the day it is equally discouraging to witness how we as tourists are left to transgress as we please. Effective policing of relatively minor offences such as speeding in the reserve or being out of the car would surely send a message to those contemplating major transgressions that Kruger National Park is not to be trifled with.
Enter the realm of policing one of Kruger’s major transgressions, rhino poaching, and you expect every gate to have sniffer dogs, a more automated access control system, and strict stop search procedures. Unfortunately this was not the case, gates are practically in the same state they were before rhino poaching became a problem. Very little technology has been implemented to keep track of people and cars entering the reserve. Stop and search procedures are still as lenient as in past years when the biggest problem was tourists smuggling alcohol into the reserve. In 2013 South African National Parks (SANParks) made a promise to bolster security throughout the whole of Kruger National Park in an effort to combat poaching. In fact, in a 2013 press release SANParks said they were set to employ new officers that would help with security and policing at the main entry points of the park. Although it was never explicitly stated how many new officers they intended to hire, one expects the number to be high considering the rampant poaching. Along with the new officers set to be deployed, it was said that sniffer dogs and new equipment would be also put to use at points of entry. This was contrary to what we experienced during our August 2016 visit. When entering and exiting the reserve each day we could count no more than 4 officers manning the gates. This number of officers would be enough if technology was used to improve efficacy and their vehicle inspections were thorough.
We were one day pleasantly surprised to find a sniffer dog at one of the gates we used to exit the park. Sadly, the dog and handler team had come to the end of their shift and the gate returned to being another unsecure point of entry. Upon speaking to the handler we found out that the park was in need of financial assistance to beef-up security starting with basic visitor patrol all the way to top tier anti-poaching rangers along with the technology and sniffer dogs needed to assist them. It was equally encouraging to notice military presence inside the reserve and to know that South Africa is throwing the weight of its defence force behind anti-poaching efforts. When we enquired about these servicemen and servicewomen the problem of being understaffed and underfunded reared its ugly head once again. The soldiers can easily hold their ground against poachers but they needed to be trained on how to handle themselves in Big 5 territory. Lack of funding to train these soldiers presents a safety problem for the soldiers and the very wildlife they were deployed to protect.
Kruger National Park is in dire need of an investment into its security. Respected conservationist Craig Spencer eloquently summed up this problem when he said; “We were caught with our pants down with the rhino threat. We never had that anti-poaching element on our reserves and we never had the opportunity to budget for it over time”.