Satellites, lie detectors, sniffer dogs, helicopters and seismic sensors: the new hi-tech weapons in Kruger National Park's war on rhino poaching
We spot the two rhino carcases from our helicopter. They are lying 50 yards apart beside the Nsikazi River on the south-west border of South Africa's Kruger National Park. The poachers clearly slipped through the fence from the nearby village of Spelanyane, killed the bull as he came to drink at sunset, then shot the female as she ran away. Scores of vultures flap skywards as we land.
The stench of decomposing flesh is overwhelming. The rhinos have been dead for less than 24 hours, but are already crawling with flies and maggots. The vultures have exposed their ribs, picking the bones clean and leaving streaks of white excrement on their thick grey hides. Soon the hyenas will move in.
The rhinos' horns have been hacked off at their bases - the work of minutes, says Charles Thompson, our pilot, who has worked in Kruger for 11 years. "We see this a lot. You have to become numb to it. It makes you angry but it makes you carry on - not for the remuneration but to try to stop it."
I've also seen poached rhinos' carcases before, but that does not lessen my revulsion. It's disgusting that these magnificent two-ton creatures can be reduced to something so rank and vile. And all so that their ground-up horns can be hawked as a bogus cure for everything from hangovers to cancer in China and Vietnam, or offered like cocaine at swanky dinners.
Thanks to that avarice and idiocy, there are scarcely 30,000 rhinos left in the world, about a quarter of which live in Kruger - a stunningly beautiful park the size of Wales where at least 3500 of the endangered beasts have been butchered over the past five years.
"It's absolutely vital that we hold the line in Kruger," according to Charlie Mayhew, chief executive of the British conservation charity Tusk. "It's crucial for the survival of the species."
Bloody war on poaching
All is not yet lost, as I am discovering during three days of rare access to a side of South Africa's largest and oldest national park seldom seen by the 1.7 million tourists who visit it each year: to the bloody and brutal war on poaching being waged far from its lodges and campsites.
The previous afternoon our helicopter alighted on a rocky escarpment in the Lebombo Mountains, which mark Kruger's eastern border with Mozambique. The view westward was sublime. Beneath a vast blue sky the seemingly pristine bushveld unspooled to a horizon as wide and flat as the ocean.
We had come not to admire the view, however, but to inspect a curious contraption perched on the cliff edge: a piece of pioneering technology that could finally give Kruger's rangers the upper hand in their battle against the poachers who have turned this sanctuary into a slaughterhouse.
Twelve feet tall, triangular and wrapped in camouflage netting, the solar-powered apparatus supports a powerful camera and infrared laser crowned by a radar transmitter. It has been dubbed the "Postcode Meerkat" - "postcode" because Peace Parks Foundation funded it with $873,000 from the UK People's Postcode Lottery, and 'meerkat' after the creature, which stands upright and swivels its head to survey the surrounding territory.
To see what it sees, we flew on to a nearby ranger station. There, as darkness fell, two operators sat in a trailer before a radar screen showing an area of more than 60 square miles. Every living mammal in that area - and there were an astonishing number - showed up as a blue dot, and left a trail of dots behind it as it moved.
Operators can tell which creatures might be human because people tend to move more purposefully than animals. For confirmation, they click on the latest dot. The Meerkat swiftly focuses on that location and produces a surprisingly clear black-and-white picture of an elephant, buffalo, zebra - or poacher gang.
"We can tell where the poachers are going, how fast, how many there are, who's carrying the rifle and who's got the axe," Mark McGill, Kruger's technical operations manager, explained.
As we watched, the Meerkat spotted three suspects entering Kruger from the east. McGill immediately alerted two ranger patrols, both equipped with radios, semi-automatics and night-vision goggles, that were already on the ground. Over the next hour he positioned one to intercept the gang and the other to cut off its retreat.
The Meerkat "is the angel on the rangers' shoulder", he said. 'We can put them in a position where the poacher is going to walk into them, not the other way round." McGill constantly updated the first patrol as the poachers advanced.
Finally the dots on the screen converged. The patrol let off a flare. The blue dots representing the wildlife in the vicinity scattered. Another dot - a poacher - ran back the way he had come, straight into the second patrol. Minutes later, the rangers confirmed that they had captured all three poachers.
This particular incursion was actually a simulation staged for my benefit, but the point was clear. The Meerkat monitors far more territory than rangers ever can. It allows them to confront poachers at night, and on their own terms. Previously, the poachers owned the night, and rangers would detect a gang's assault only if they found its tracks the next morning - by which time it could be 32km away with a rhino already dead.
By the time of my visit this experimental Meerkat had been operating for 41 days, monitoring one of the main 'corridors' that poachers from Mozambique use to penetrate Kruger. It had detected 55. Some had been arrested, others had fled across the border, and latterly they had stopped coming to the area altogether.
"The rumour is spreading that we have a satellite," explained Johan Jooste, the former South African army general who has led Kruger's anti-poaching efforts since 2013. Jooste told me the Meerkat is the most exciting new anti-poaching technology he has seen. He wants to buy four more when the technology is fully developed, though they could cost $1.3 million each.
"We've come such a long way. We've tried so many things. We've flown drones and tried every sensor on the planet, and we've not found a better combination and better way to do area domination,' he said. 'This will become a major tool in our toolbox, because nothing else gives you the night, and that's what changes the game."
Jooste is a short, trim 64-year-old who jogs on Kruger's main airstrip after the leopards and hyenas vanish at dawn each day. He fought in South Africa's Border War in the 1980s, helped create his country's first post-apartheid army, supervised its technology projects and ended up in charge of strategy.
After 35 years of military service, and a few more with BAE Systems, he was headhunted to tackle the rapidly escalating scourge of rhino poaching in the Kruger. "It's been the toughest challenge of my life," he says bluntly.
He arrived just as surging demand for rhino horn in the Far East was pushing the price up to about £1200 an ounce, making gold look cheap. That meant the horns of an adult rhino were worth £100,000 or more, and Kruger had 8000 of those animals inside a 965km perimeter flanked by two million dirt-poor villagers.
International poaching syndicates began offering those villagers $9000 or $17,000 for a pair of horns - enough to change their lives, as we saw from the ostentatiously grand houses being erected in the otherwise wretched villages we flew over. Soon Kruger was losing two or three rhinos a day.
"This is low-risk, high-return. Why do a cash-in-transit heist when you can walk into the bush and harvest the most expensive commodity on the planet?" Jooste says.
Cruelty of the poachers
More than 5000 poachers now regularly infiltrate Kruger. At any one time, a dozen gangs will be operating inside the park, and they are, he concedes, excellent - if barbaric - bushmen. They usually work in threes - a marksman, a navigator and a porter.
They carry little more than some water, bread, cans of pilchards and muti - charms that supposedly protect them. They can cover 32km a night through bush rife with elephants, lions and hyenas, and go to great lengths to conceal their tracks - covering their shoes with socks, walking backwards for a distance to confuse the rangers, or passing through herds of buffalo.
Increasingly, they carry modern, high-calibre weapons with silencers, but they seldom fire more than a single shot lest they alert the rangers.
"What horrifies you is where the animal is wounded but not killed, so they immobilise it by hacking its spine or Achilles tendons so it can't go anywhere," Frik Rossouw, head of Kruger's Environmental Crime Investigation Team, told me one afternoon as his colleagues examined the hyena-scattered bones of a week-old carcase deep in the bush. "Then they take the horns off while the animal is still alive and leave it breathing through a huge cavity in its nose."
The poachers' cruelty does not end there. They will hack a rhino's calf to death as well. They may poison the rhino's carcass to kill the vultures so the rangers do not spot them circling overhead. A few take its eyes and ears for use as muti.
Prince Harry visited Kruger in 2015 and "the cruelty and unnecessary nature of the crime really got to him", Jooste says. Jooste's brief was to use his military experience to turn a ranger corps still focused on traditional conservation, and lacking a coherent strategy or command structure for tackling industrial-scale poaching, into a 'paramilitary corps'; to take on poachers, in other words, as he had once fought insurgents.
Five years on, he has created a command centre - the 'Foxhole' - and a miniature army of more than 700 well-trained, well-equipped rangers, elite rangers, soldiers, police and other personnel.
At any one time more than 60 two- or three-man patrols are out in the bush, and they clash with poachers about 100 times a year. They cannot 'shoot to kill', but fatalities do occur when rangers have to fire in self-defence.
Jooste will not disclose how many, dismissing reports that hundreds have died as "much exaggerated". He says only that "we must remain civilised. As it is, this war puts a burden on your being because it's so brutal and you live with the barbarism of the rhino killing every day... We must take care of ourselves so one day, when this campaign is over, we must account for what we have done."
Lie detectors, camera traps and sensors
The rangers receive psychological counselling because of the emotional strain of what they see and do. They must also take lie-detector tests to uncover those 'snakes' bribed by the syndicates to disclose where the patrols or rhinos are.
"Rhino money buys many people at all levels in all fields," says Jooste, who was the first to take a polygraph. Kruger now has an 'air wing' with four helicopters, two fixed-wing aircraft and three microlights, and a canine unit with 53 highly trained dogs.
Two sniffer dogs are stationed at each of its 10 entrances, one to search for guns and ammunition concealed in vehicles considered suspect by human spotters, and another for animal parts. A single tracker dog - a Belgian Malinois named K9 Killer - has helped catch 149 poachers. Jooste has also embraced technology.
As well as the Meerkat, there is a software system called Cmore, which logs every carcase, incursion, weapon, trail and camp found in the park, allowing the rangers to build up a detailed picture of where, when and how poachers are most likely to strike.
The park has tried and rejected drones, but uses camera traps and an array of magnetic, seismic and acoustic sensors around the perimeter of the 1,500 square mile Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ) that Jooste has created in Kruger's so'th. Also called "Fortress Rhino", the zone contains 5000 of Kruger's rhinos and is probably the densest concentration of the creatures in the world. "If the poachers saturate the IPZ they will kill rhino like there's no tomorrow," he says.
It was at Jooste's behest that South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research developed the Postcode Meerkat, also known as the Wide Area Surveillance System. Kruger will soon introduce advanced number-plate-recognition systems to spot stolen or suspicious cars entering the park, and CCTV cameras to detect vehicles leaving with fewer passengers than they brought in.
"It's pioneering work. We're like a laboratory," says Jooste, who has raised more than $20 million from private donors including the Howard G Buffett and Peace Parks foundations.
More broadly, he has developed an intelligence network in the villages around the park, and pays for information leading to a conviction. He has forged alliances with the many private conservancies that border Kruger, effectively pushing its borders outwards. He has helped persuade South Africa's government to impose substantially tougher penalties for poaching, and to open a permanent court in Kruger's Skukuza headquarters whose judges 'understand what's at stake".
How to fight in a guerrilla war
In neighbouring Mozambique, poaching was not even treated as a crime until 2014, but under international pressure its government has introduced stiff penalties, which are being enforced with varying degrees of rigour.
Jooste's subordinates speak of him with admiration. "He took us from having no direction and approach to the onslaught we were trying to deal with and guided our whole anti-poaching effort into a solid spear,v Charles Thompson, the helicopter pilot, declared as we swept over Kruger's seemingly infinite bush. "Everyone was basically a nature lover and had never been in the military and he taught us how to fight in a guerrilla war."
His efforts have certainly slowed the carnage. Kruger lost a record 827 rhinos in 2014, 826 in 2015, and 662 last year, and the downward trend continues. The number of poachers arrested inside Kruger has risen from 123 in 2013 to 281 last year.
"The deployment of the Postcode Meerkats should enable us to reach that crucial tipping point where rhino births in Kruger exceed the number of deaths," Jooste says. But nine carcases are found during my short stay.
With an average of one or two rhinos still being killed each day, the number of poacher incursions still rising sharply and the kingpins still operating with seeming impunity, Jooste is certainly not claiming victory. That, he argues, can only be achieved by reducing demand for rhino horn in the Far East, and by offering alternative employment to impoverished local communities who regard Kruger as a colonial legacy.
"We can't win this through law enforcement alone," he says, "but you have to make bloody sure that while it's on your beat you restrict the damage and create space for those strategic solutions."
On the second night, I camped in the bush with Marius Renke, a veteran ranger, falling asleep to the sounds of lions and hyenas.
At sunrise we hiked to a pool where five hippos wallowed. We watched as those majestic creatures - so similar to rhinos in size and shape - turned towards us, exhaling loudly as they rose and sank beneath the water. The bull bit the water to warn us off, then began to advance menacingly.
How fortunate were hippos to be created without horns, I reflected as we retreated hastily. For millennia those curious protuberances enabled the rhino to defend itself, but they have become - to humanity's shame - its death warrant.
The Top 10 most endangered animals, according to WWF
2. Black Rhino
3. Cross River Gorilla
4. Hawksbill Turtle
5. Javan Rhino
6. Leatherback Turtle
7. Mountain Gorilla
10. South China Tiger