Johannesburg – An emergency was declared as the first elephant was poached on the western border of Kruger National Park.
Each day in Africa around 100 elephants die at the hands of poachers. Almost all the killing has occurred beyond the borders of South Africa but, as the escalating slaughter of rhinos in Kruger National Park shows, when the ivory poachers move south they could be unstoppable.
For this reason, when a dead snared elephant with its tusks removed, was found on the outskirts of Balule, near the Northern Border last Thursday, everyone scrambled.
‘We had the Air Force, the Parks Board and Balule’s Black Mambas anti-poaching unit there really fast,’ said Craig Spencer, director of Transfrontier Africa.
‘There were 35 people on the ground and we did an autopsy on the spot. The Parks Board is absolutely petrified this could start an ivory market in the area, so we have to get our hands on that ivory fast. We don’t want to alert the community to the value of poaching elephants.’
Last Wednesday, Balule’s camera traps detected three men crossing the boundary from communal lands to the north of the reserve. Early the next morning a Black Mamba patrol came across their campfire and evidence of a hasty departure. They followed their trail backwards and found the elephant that had been snared by a cable and had its face cut off with a hacksaw.
‘The autopsy found no bullet wounds,’ said Spencer, ‘and the snare had been set on a trail frequented by elephants and buffalo. Whether or not the catch was incidental, the poachers knew the value of ivory and those tusks are going to make their way into the market. I don’t think this was a hit commissioned by a buyer so they’ll have to fish around to sell and we have informers. That ivory is going to surface somewhere.’
One of the drivers of elephant poaching, said Spencer, is the poverty surrounding elephant sanctuaries. Even if they legalised trade and it lowered the price, it’s still worthwhile for poor people to poach horn or ivory.
‘Another problem is that north of Balule it’s state land and there’s zero control. No presence of law enforcement or conservation management. Limpopo Province just isn’t organised to deal with this stuff.’