Unit leaves no stone unturned

The rhino was hit by a bullet above the eye, where the entry wound is being cut out.
The rhino was hit by a bullet above the eye, where the entry wound is being cut out.

The first sign of the scene of a crime is the vultures circling above. We know it’s a rhino carcass, as tourists in a nearby rest camp heard four shots at 18:05 on July 27, three days earlier. Plus, this is the Kruger National Park, where rhino poaching is rife. Chances are slim that the vultures are waiting for the carcass of anything else.

Section ranger Richard Sowry says in the pitch-black darkness, and in this terrain, it’s near impossible to see a carcass, let alone a person. “They use the cover of night because they can exploit it.”

The terrain comes with a number of other difficulties as well. “There might be lion in the area, but remember, we intimidate them” says Kobus de Wet, senior manager of SANParks Environmental Crime Investigation (ECI). “Stick together,” he says. “If they do come, please stand still.”

Not many get to see what happens at the scene of a rhino poaching, but nowadays SANParks regularly takes media on such excursions to highlight the extent of the crisis. We are accompanied by De Wet and Sowry, as well as WO Linda Luther.

Daintily built and ready with a smile, Luther is an expert in rhino-related crime scenes. De Wet himself has been with the ECI unit for 14 years. “Years ago we would have seen only about 10 carcasses. Then it became 36, and now it’s a full-time job,” he says. “We deal with all environmental crime in the park, but focus on rhino and now also, the threat to elephant.”

To put it lightly, it’s not a job for the faint-hearted. The team members start by mapping the possible trajectory of the bullet. Luther looks for any potential human DNA (water cans, bottles, tissues and so forth) and cartridges. DNA is also taken from the animal itself. If it can be linked to a confiscated horn, charges can be upped from possession to dealing. Most importantly, they look for bullets. If they find any, they can be linked to a weapon and perhaps a perpetrator.

However, they must find these vital pieces of evidence first. On this day, one of the bullets entered the estimated 10-year-old white rhino above his eye, and was now lodged in the decaying carcass. This was where it got hairy. Even though a metal detector is used, the body must physically be taken apart to get to it. Apart from the physical labour involved, the smell has already debilitating. An operation like this could take hours, says De Wet, and might eventually require removing all the organs to move the body into the correct position.

“It takes a certain kind of person to do this,” admits Luther. Even for her, it’s not for the love of the work that she does it, but for the love of the animal.

For Sowry, the motivation is the same. “I love my job. I’m not in it for the money.” But he adds that faced with such sights every day, he has to take some time every morning to get his mental state right before he starts.

As no end to the rhino-poaching scourge in this park is in sight, De Wet is positive that the work they do makes a difference. He cites the recent arrest of a man in Singapore, who could be traced back to a poached rhino in the Kruger. For the ECI team at least, its contribution to fight rhino poaching is working.

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