I recently met up with Lawrence Munro, the head of KwaZulu-Natal’s Rhino Operations Unit.
This unit is a joint government task force that co-ordinates anti-poaching efforts across the province. Munro and his team work with police and intelligence agencies to address all rhino security threats, both in and outside of the public and private protected areas.
As manager of the rhino anti-poaching unit, the 39 year-old former section ranger of the iMfolozi Wilderness area is also responsible for ZAP Wing (the aerial surveillance and reaction team).
Collectively, the public and private protected areas of KwaZulu-Natal are home to the second-biggest population of rhinos in Africa, after Kruger National Park.
The KZN province in the east of South Africa is the birthplace of rhino conservation on the continent. It is where white rhinos were saved from extinction in the late 1890s, with the proclamation of iMfolozi Game Reserve, one of the oldest protected areas in Africa.
In the 1950s conservation legend Ian Player and his team of rangers were responsible for moving some of the surplus white rhino out of Imfolozi, reintroducing the species into the rest of South Africa and numerous countries around the continent where rhinos once occurred.
Today rhino poaching in South Africa is at record levels, with about 1 215 killed in 2014, up from 1004 in 2013, 668 in 2012 and 448 in 2011.
In 2014, more than 700 rhinos were killed in Kruger National Park, where the majority of Africa’s rhinos occur.
In KwaZulu-Natal 99 rhinos were killed by poachers in 2014, 63 in Ezemvelo provincial reserves and 36 in private reserves. Of these, 80 were white rhino and 19 were black rhino. The total number of rhino killed in 2013 was 85; 66 in 2012 and 34 in 2011.
I joined Lawrence recently on one of his aerial patrols, as he flew over northern Zululand, and asked him about his work and the state of rhino poaching in KwaZulu-Natal.
Scott Ramsay: What’s the current status quo with rhino poaching in KZN?
Lawrence Munro: Rhino poaching in KZN is similar to the rest of South Africa. Every year it’s growing.
What’s interesting to note, though, is the percentage increase. The percentage increase in poaching in KZN over recent years is lower than other provinces and significantly lower than Kruger.
In KZN we looked at both black and white rhino, and we worked out what is an acceptable percentage increase in poaching for both species.
The tolerated level has been set at the population density at which we can still achieve a 5% population growth rate every year, for black and white. For white rhino, the percentage poaching increase is still below that. The percentage increase in poaching has not yet reached 5% growth in increase of population.
For black rhino, unfortunately, the percentage poaching increase has just matched the percentage population increase, so the population is not growing, but its not decreasing either.
SR: To what do you attribute KZN’s relative success, compared to the rest of the country?
LM: Conservationists have traditionally used a very old methodology of practicing rhino security: we fortify our protected areas, and we react to poaching incidents.
What is clear is that we cannot continue to rely on reaction-based methodologies. Our older methods were reactive, and not proactive enough. Today, we’re far more proactive.
Importantly, we decided several years ago to pursue intensive external operations. Now there’s a major focus to do law enforcement operations on poachers outside of protected areas.
We’re essentially taking the fight to the poachers. We’re not waiting for them to come to us. If we can take the fight to the poachers before they even get into the protected area, we can deter, deflect and ultimately neutralize them before they get near a rhino.
The danger of our old, reactive methodologies is that we would engage poachers in the parks, and we would neutralise them or arrest them, but the rhino is still dead, and no matter how many poachers you kill or arrest, there are always more poachers waiting outside.
Both Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and South African National Parks, which includes Kruger, are now more focused on external operations.
SR: How do you take the fight to the poachers?
LM: The biggest change for us is the listing of rhino poaching as a priority national crime. This means that the existing government’s intelligence and security agencies now support the conservation agencies. So the police and intelligence-gathering structures now help the conservationists, including Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, to fight rhino crime.
Our Rhino Operations Unit now combines well with all the background players, especially the government’s intelligence units, which have extensive resources that previously were never available to us in conservation. We’re able to tap into the state resources in a coordinated fashion.
Our new methodology of external operations is working well. We call it “knocking”. Knocking poachers outside protected areas, knocking poachers at their residences, disturbing their smuggling routes and destabilising their networks.
Everything we’re talking about now is outside of protected areas. The game rangers in the parks are doing what they’ve always done and it’s very necessary to secure our protected areas. We can’t ignore the fundamentals of securing our parks, but the external operations augments the hard work being done by rangers.
90% of my time is spent outside protected areas on operations, while 10% is inside a protected area, when I’m reacting to very specific information.
SR: Who are the typical rhino poachers in KZN?
LM: A poaching group is usually three or four people, and it always has a Mozambican component to them. The exact compilation varies, but I can say with authority that there is at least one Mozambican in every single rhino poaching group that we encounter.
In general, they are not very well educated and not very sophisticated, but they have almost always grown up in a rural environment, and therefore their bush knowledge is very, very good. They are also often working in tandem with a corrupt official.
SR: How do the poachers operate on the ground?
LM: They are very active the week prior to full moon and the week after full moon. It’s a pragmatic thing. If night-vision technology improved and became cheaper, then we would see a shift. Poachers would start shooting in the dark if they can see in the dark.
They are using a heavy calibre bolt action rifles: 458 and 375 with silencers. But they are starting to carry hand guns too, so they can shoot at our rangers.
They all use cell phones, and some have been arrested with radios and iPads, but the humble cell phone is a formidable tool.
SR: What are poachers being paid?
LM: I’m not allowed to reveal that information.
SR: Where are the poaching hotspots in KZN?
LM: Basically, the hotspots run commensurate with a protected areas’ proximity to international borders. Protected areas like Tembe, Ndumu, Mkhuze, Ozabeni, Phinda and the private reserves up on the Swaziland border are at the highest risk. They are closest to the international border, but sometimes it’s a little more complex than that.
SR: Where is the horn ending up?
LM: Notably, in KZN the rhino horn almost always moves out of the province quickly. There are very few middlemen in KZN. In other provinces, for example Mpumalanga and Gauteng, there are far more middlemen.
Therefore smuggling routes in KZN are very important for us to monitor. This is very much a primary focus of our unit.
SR: What is the number of poachers in the province; do you have an estimate of that?
LM: There are hundreds of names that have been flagged as being involved with rhino poaching. Rhino poachers typically organise themselves in a cell-type network, and those cells can mutate into other cells, so they can form together and disband with a single phone call. As soon as we identify a gang, and as soon as pressure is applied to that gang, it fragments and new gangs pop up somewhere else.
SR: How often is your team or other rangers coming into contact with poachers?
LM: The rangers in the parks form an inner cordon within the reserves, so they inevitably encounter poachers that enter a protected area. The Rhino Operations Unit is intelligence-driven and is deployed according to our intelligence, so we generally encounter poachers more often, often outside the parks. And that’s because we’re actively looking for them. When we encounter them in protected areas, poachers almost always shoot at our rangers, and shots are almost always exchanged.
SR: How many men have you lost?
LM: We have lost one man in the past few years, and there have been few injuries. I think any contact that you survive is a success. People do die and a couple of times we’ve had to carry bodies out. Lucikly so far the majority are poachers, but we’re under no illusions that our rangers could die in a contact with poachers. But we’ve been lucky so far. I think that our rangers are trained very well, and they are generally exceptional people who believe in what they’re doing.
SR: What’s it like doing your job? You’re surrounded by a lot of conflict and violence, yet you’re operating in some of the most beautiful wildlife areas on the continent?
LM: We deal with paradoxes all the time. We flit between what is beautiful and peaceful on one day, to what is incredibly ugly and confrontational the next.
For instance, one recent Christmas we knew we were expecting a threat. My fellow ranger and I were sitting up on a hill, on patrol, because we were deployed in teams of two.
We were in the wilderness area of Imfolozi and it was the most beautiful sunset. It had rained earlier in the day so everything was fresh and sparkling. We were staring out at the sunset over the river, and we could hear the animals and the birds in the trees. It’s an incredible time of year in a very beautiful place. Everything’s very green and lush.
And then, as it gets dark, a call comes on the radio to say one of the teams has just heard gunshots, and while the ranger’s talking on the radio to me, I can hear the gunshots through his radio, as he’s talking to me.
All of a sudden, everything changes. Everybody deploys into ambushes. You’re lying there. Now, you’re placing yourself in harm’s way. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the surroundings are. You’ve only got one thing on your mind, and that is that you want to apprehend these guys and you don’t want to get hurt, and you definitely don’t want your fellow ranger to get hurt.
And you’re lying in the bush, waiting in ambush for them. There’s plenty of adrenaline, you’re sweating like crazy, holding your rifle, hoping like hell they’re going to come to you because you want to apprehend them, but then part of you is also hoping, shit, I hope I’m not going to get shot, injured or killed today.
While you’re lying there, you hear shots 300 metres away from you. It sounds like popcorn going off in a pot, just tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat, and then after that it’s just mad shouting on the radio. It’s chaos. People are screaming.
You sprint to that point. You get there. There are bodies lying around, and you pray it’s not one of your team. Now you tick that box to say okay, everyone’s fine, everyone’s safe, nobody’s dying – on our side anyway.
Then we need to recover the evidence, we need to keep our wits about us now because we’ve got to treat this as a crime scene, and we’ve got to remember all these little things that can be very important in court. When you’ve got a poacher lying at your feet, and a gun and rhino horns, you’ve only just started your work.
SR: How do you deal with that contrast on a daily basis?
LM: Well, you feel a lot of things. I think when you do have success, the buzz that comes from that success is usually enough to last you for a month or two. It’s such an incredible feeling to actually apprehend a rhino poacher, or find horns or a gun. So you crave it more and so you continue pushing more. But the job does take its toll, of course.
SR: How does your family deal with it?
LM: They hate the rhino war. If my wife could never hear the word “rhino” in her life again, she’d be very happy. It puts a massive strain on them. Everything changes when you work in this field. Everything. The car you drive, the clothes you wear, the company you keep, your social habits, everything is affected by rhino poaching, absolutely everything.
I’m often working at night, because that’s when poachers are operating. I’ll work most of the day, then have to work at night as well, especially during full moon periods.
SR: This is not a normal nine-to-five job clearly?
LM: No, and it extends beyond work. We have had very directed, pointed death threats. Letters that are written with my name on to say: we don’t want you around anymore.
I don’t think a lot of people realise the implications of that. For instance, I won’t allow my family to drive after dark unless I’m present. I just won’t. End of story. My wife is never going to go and have a cup of coffee with a girlfriend after dark. She’s never going to attend a kid’s function or a birthday party after dark unless I’m present. It’s just not going to happen.
The other thing that happens is that you start to think combatively all the time. Whether you’re on leave or whether you’re at work, I’m always thinking combatively.
This is very stressful for me, and it creates stress at home because you will say things and do things that irritate your family and they won’t always understand where it’s coming from. You don’t want to tell them either because you don’t want to make your family paranoid or worried. It’s not easy. I feel like I’m constantly in a war.
SR: How do you relax? Personally, what do you do to switch off because you can’t think combatively all the time?
LM: We don’t relax often. It’s not a good thing. I need to go to a place where a cell phone doesn’t work, and where there are no rhinos, and where I am geographically so far removed from rhinos that I cannot be called back in an emergency.
SR: So why do you put your lives on the line on a daily basis? What drives you and your team?
LM: It’s about principles.
I hate it when people say we need to save rhinos for our grandchildren. It irks me that this cliché is used all the time. I’m a working class citizen of this country. If my grandchildren don’t ever see a rhino, how’s it going to affect them, honestly? It’s not going to. They’ll still be able to buy petrol at the station and a loaf of bread if there are no rhinos.
So I think what drives me is the principle of the matter. Here is something that is being threatened, and that something is not necessarily the rhino. It’s the rhino, yes, but it’s larger than that. The rhino is symbolic of conservation in Africa, of wild places, of protected areas, of respect for all wild creatures. It’s about the protection of something that has been entrusted to us for safekeeping. It’s very much a principle-driven thing for me. These things are all intertwined.
And it’s a moral thing. Rhino poaching is greed-orientated. It’s not subsistence, because the rhino’s not eaten. It is straightforward greed. It’s organised by crime syndicates which are involved already with human trafficking, drugs, firearms and stolen vehicles; it’s on par with all of those things.
If we can’t justify the protection of Africa’s rhinos, hell knows how we’re going to explain to the rest of the country and continent that we need to conserve a soil type, a watershed or a frog species.
So it all starts with protecting rhinos and elephants and other large species. If we don’t get these things right, we’re not going to get anything else right. So, that’s what drives me.
SR: There have been several instances of corrupt conservation officials being involved with rhino poaching. What’s that like to deal with?
LM: There’s nothing more disheartening when a conservationist on the inside is found to be complicit in rhino poaching.
We can fight as hard as we can, we can kill poachers, we can put our lives on the line, we can run the risk of turning our wives into widows and our kids into fatherless children, but we can sort of deal with these things because we know we are on the right side.
But, when you find out that the guy that stands next to you, shoulder to shoulder, is actually the enemy, it’s very disheartening. It’s a betrayal.
As rhino poaching increases in intensity, and sophistication – I’ll use the term evil orchestration – I become more and more aware of the integrity and loyalty of the men around me.
There was a time when you would just jump out of a bakkie and rush off into the bush to fight poachers, and you could rely on any man wearing a green uniform to watch your back, and he could rely on you to watch his back, come hell or high water. There was no question. Total trust.
It’s not like that anymore. So you’ve got to pick your men carefully, yes. You’ve got to know that when you’re out there, your fellow ranger has your back. Often we will be camping in the bush for long periods, waiting in ambush for poachers. There is going to come a time when you will have to sleep and your life is going to be in that other person’s hands. Now, if he’s being paid off, anything can happen to you. You can take a shot through the head while you’re sleeping and he can disappear. It’s easy. Anything can happen.
SR: Do you ever wish you you’d rather be doing something else?
SR: So despite everything you enjoy your work?
LM: Yes, I do. However the thing that disheartens me a lot is that we have so much potential to fight, but parts of our government – not all of it, but some key players and organisations – don’t unleash their full potential.
In fact, sometimes they put stumbling blocks and hurdles in our way, and that is very demoralising. Eventually, this will probably be the thing that would drive me out of here. As rangers we often feel that we have to fight our own government agencies to be allowed to do our job properly, and that is insane.
SR: What else has to be done – on a macro level – to stop poaching?
LM: All sorts of things are critical. The awareness campaigns and demand reduction campaigns in the end-user countries are critical. We have to remove the syndicate leaders. We have to have good alliances with neighbouring countries like Mozambique
But at the same time, we have to take a hard stance against those countries that harbor poaching syndicates.
We need to send the message that if your poachers come in here, we will deal with them in the harshest way. I’m not necessarily saying we will kill them, but we will deal with them in the harshest legal way, and the law will take its course swiftly and consistently every time.
When people are arrested here, the state must make the effort, and have the political will, to nail those people. Everyone must do their job: the rangers, the police, the investigators, the forensic teams, the prosecutors and the magistrates. We have the laws. We really do. A lot of people think we need to change the laws. We don’t. We all just have to do our jobs properly.
SR: Last question: Can South Africa win this war against poachers?
LM: Yes, we can, but – and it’s a massive “BUT” – only if we have the political will to win it. We potentially have all the resources, the dedication, the expertise and the knowledge to win this war. But the last, and most important, outstanding ingredient, is political will. If we can get that, we can win this war. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that we can win this war.