JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Rangers at the Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s best-known safari destinations, didn’t have to wait long for their first battle of the new year.
Less than a week into 2013, field rangers stationed in a section of the vast park near South Africa’s border with Mozambique found themselves in a gunfight with three suspected poachers. The men escaped, leaving behind a high-caliber hunting rifle and a bag full of rhino horns. The carcass of an endangered white rhinoceros was later found nearby.
It was an all-too typical encounter. Five rhinos have been killed in South Africa already this year, including three at Kruger park, which is home to the bulk of the world’s rhino population and has been hardest hit by the poaching crisis.
“It’s a military incursion that we are experiencing,” said Ike Phaahla, a spokesman for South African National Parks. “You have people crossing an international border, armed.”
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“We have to be optimistic,” Phaahla said. “There are a lot of resources that have been put into it.”
Last year a record 668 rhinos were killed for their horns, a nearly 50 percent increase from 2011, with 425 of them poached at Kruger. Demand for rhino horn comes primarily from the newly wealthy of Vietnam, where it is considered a panacea for everything from cancer to hangovers, and perhaps more importantly, a status symbol.
To buck this trend, a newly appointed retired two-star army general is now heading anti-poaching efforts at Kruger. He is tasked with coordinating efforts between field rangers, an anti-poaching unit, and South African soldiers stationed at the park.
“It is a fact that South Africa, a sovereign country, is under attack from armed foreign nationals,” Ret. Maj. Gen. Johan Jooste, 60, said in a statement.
“This should be seen as a declaration of war against South Africa by armed foreign criminals. We are going to take the war to these armed bandits and we aim to win it.”
Since late December, Kruger National Park has been monitored by a Seeker II unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, loaned to the national parks authority by its South African manufacturer. Also in the air is a donated Seeker Seabird surveillance plane, equipped with a heat-sensing camera.
Rangers are being retrained, since their jobs have dramatically changed as a result of the poaching crisis: instead of being on the lookout for alien plants and whether dams have enough water for the animals, “now they are faced with armed incursions,” Phaahla said.
Julian Rademeyer, a South African journalist and author of the book “Killing for Profit,” an investigation into the illegal rhino-horn trade, notes that gun battles between park rangers and suspected poachers are frequently fatal.
“While every bit helps, time and time again it has been shown that shooting and killing poachers does nothing to help stop the problem,” he said, citing his research into poaching in southern Africa.
South African police have made some inroads in fighting the syndicates that control the rhino-horn trade. Most notable was the arrest last year of Thai national Chumlong Lemtongthai, who is now spending 40 years in jail for his involvement in the illegal rhino-horn trade — the stiffest sentence given for a wildlife crime in South Africa to date.
But now, syndicates are shifting the base of their operations to neighboring Mozambique, Rademeyer explained, and this may make Kruger park’s problems all the worse.
In Mozambique, which has no rhinos of its own but is already being used as a transit route for rhino horn, “it’s easy to bribe your way through,” he said. “There’s virtually no enforcement of wildlife crime.”
Two Vietnamese men were arrested in separate incidents this week in Vietnam and Thailand, illegally transporting rhino horn believed to have been smuggled from Mozambique.
In one of the cases, police at Ho Chi Minh City’s international airport arrested a man who had just arrived off a flight from Maputo, the Mozambican capital, via Doha in Qatar. According to reports, officers were alerted by the smell of rotting flesh, and found him in possession of six horns — a significant haul.
Rademeyer said that despite the new efforts to fight the poaching threat, the evolving nature of the illegal rhino-horn trade points to a grim outlook for 2013.
“All indications are that it’s going to get substantially worse,” he said.