MARKEN, South Africa — There was a time when hunters paid good money to hunt animals like antelope and buffalo at Simon Rood’s wild-game reserve. But on a recent day, Rood watched as one of his staff stared into a tangle of dried-out trees and waited to load his rifle during a training exercise. The quarry was something different.
“What do we eradicate?” Rood barked.
“Poachers!” shouted his employee.
Poaching has taken a devastating toll on iconic African wildlife, like the rhinoceros. In the early 20th century, there were about half a million rhinos in the wild internationally; today, there are less than 30,000 across Asia and Africa. The vast majority live in South Africa.
Protecting those animals has become a serious business. Rood decided several years ago to get out of the hunting industry and start a security company aimed at conserving wildlife. Now he uses his land to train anti-poaching guards that his firm, Nkwe Wildlife and Security Services, sends to work at private reserves.
“You can’t stop the poaching — that’s a pie in the sky. It’s about bringing the poaching to acceptable levels,” Rood said.
The slaughter has become an emergency for national parks as well as for South Africa’s private game reserves, where tourists come to stay at luxurious lodges and catch a glimpse of the Big Five: lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and rhinos.
As of last year, 6,200 rhinos — roughly a third of the country’s rhino population — were living on private reserves, according to the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA). So far, most of the slain rhinos have been killed in Kruger National Park, the largest game reserve in South Africa. But as the government has ramped up the famous park’s security, poachers have started looking elsewhere.
South Africa’s private security industry already employs nearly 500,000 guards in homes, malls and offices to supplement a police force overwhelmed by high crime. In recent years, the anti-poaching industry has trained hundreds more guards to take on the menace in the country’s game parks.
“We’re talking about a global criminal syndicate, and it’s not getting smaller, it’s getting bigger,” says Karl Miller, chairman and chief executive of the GES Group, whose subsidiary in South Africa provides anti-poaching rangers and security personnel to look after 1,600 rhinos across the country. “They’re very well funded, and they’re very heavily armed.”
Between 2007 and 2014, the recorded number of rhinos poached in South Africa soared from 13 to 1,215, according to the government. The animals are killed for their horns, which can fetch thousands of dollars per pound on the black market in Asia. In recent years, there has been a spike in demand in Vietnam, where the horns are used in what some locals say are cures for maladies as diverse as cancer and hangovers, as well as in such high-end ornaments as cups and bracelets.
The South African government has declared rhino poaching to be a “national priority crime,” and has rolled out a raft of initiatives to combat the problem, including boosting security in national parks and moving rhinos to safer areas. In the first eight months of 2016, more than 400 alleged poachers were arrested, according to the government, compared with 343 arrests in 2013 and 267 in 2012.
Although police investigate poaching crimes that occur on public and private land, landowners largely furnish their own security. “Before, we could get away with having a couple of guys, not formally trained,” says Pelham Jones, chairman of the rhino owners’ association. “We are all now required to provide armed anti-poaching units.”
Albi Modise, a spokesman for the country’s Department of Environmental Affairs, said “the security industry plays an important role when it comes to protection of rhino on private game reserves.”
Since 2009, South Africa’s private rhino owners have spent $115 million on security to protect the rhinos, Jones said.
He said that in the past seven years, there have been at least 20 armed attacks by poaching groups on park management or staff. One member of an anti-poaching unit was killed, he said.
On a private game reserve not far from Kruger, a wooden barricade encloses a small security officers’ camp, one corner of the fence bashed in by a curious elephant. The reserve pays Protrack Anti-Poaching Unit, another security firm, to provide guards.
When the park guests settle in for “sundowners,” or cocktails, the anti-poaching units are on high alert, sunset being a popular time for poachers to shoot rhinos and flee the property under the cover of darkness.
A short drive from the guards’ camp, the remains of a rhino carcass lay near a watering hole, only a few joints of bone and desiccated hide left. In September, Godfrey, a 25-year-old guard, was patrolling the area and came across the rhino after poachers had killed it and hacked off its horn.
“When we found it, it was still bleeding,” says Godfrey, who uses only one name. “We could see a few footprints. They went that way,” he says, pointing into the bush and making a whoosh noise. Gone.
What Godfrey would have done had he caught them presents its own complications. Armed anti-poaching units working on private land must be registered with the government, as must their guns. They can legally use weapons on duty, but if they kill a poacher in self-defense, they can be charged with murder, according to security firm owners.
Miller, of GES, said rangers in the private industry sometimes won’t aim their weapons at poachers they encounter, for fear of legal repercussions, and will shoot over their heads instead. Although his staff workers are trained to respond to armed poachers, he says, some guards are less prepared, and that can embolden poachers. “If it’s an ill-equipped, small unit, the poachers are going to see the soft spots.”
In Protrack’s headquarters in Hoedspruit, a tourist town in Limpopo province, dozens of blue folders are stacked in the office of Vincent Barkas, the company’s founder. Each includes images of a poaching crime scene and rhino autopsy. Barkas says he shares the files with police but that only a handful have led to arrests.
Coordination with police and authorities is improving, Barkas says, but he said he thinks the overall effort to stop rhino poaching remains too disjointed and that, ultimately, it’s the global trafficking syndicates that have the upper hand.
“They call it a rhino war, but we can’t fight a war,” Barkas says. “We’ve got labor laws. We’ve got to pay overtime. We’ve got all these different rules to follow, and the poacher’s got no rules.”
Even though he’s making money from his firm, Barkas worries that the escalating fight is further polarizing the country. The people hired by poaching kingpins to go after the animals are often desperately poor. If an anti-poaching guard kills one of those men, that can create animosity toward security companies and the conservation effort in general.
“Unfortunately, being South Africans, we are throwing more guns, more weapons at this problem, and we’re not doing anything about education and awareness,” he says. “It might be too late for the rhino now.”