Project Ivory to protect elephants


As we approached a rocky outcrop in the northern reaches of the Kruger National Park, the sky was swarming with vultures circling by the hundreds as the thermals took them higher. Marabou storks kept vigil in the nearby trees. There was something morbidly beautiful about the scene.

But this was the location of yet another dead elephant. It was late in January, and this was
the sixth carcass of 2019 north of the Olifants River. An additional elephant’s fate was sealed just a few kilometres from this scene, right next to the main road.

Both carcasses had their tusks intact, but the forensic team still had to determine whether these animals died from a potential poaching incident or from other causes. It seemed like the giant bull found dead on the koppie might have died after a fight with another male. Lieutenant colonel Maila Malatji from the SANParks Environmental Crime Investigation team used his metal detector to fine-comb the area and carcass on the koppie for bullets, but did not find anything. DNA samples were also collected.

Of the six carcasses, Malatji confirmed four were the result of poaching. SANParks launched Project Ivory at the end of January to help combat poaching. The project’s aim is to provide ranger support in the north of the park, which is home to the largest concentration of elephants.

In 2014, two elephants were poached, but this number increased to 24 and 46 in the following years. “In 2017, we lost 67 elephants,” confirmed SANParks chief ranger, Nicholas Funda.

A census in 2017 counted 19 000 elephants in the park. Numbers are increasing by 4% per year, but the idea is to prevent another rhino poaching situation.

dead elephant on kopie in Kruger

Major general (ret) Johan Jooste, who heads SANParks’ anti-poaching unit, said they are aiming to prevent suspects from entering the park in the first place. “Elephants are easy to see. If poaching gets out of hand it will be very difficult to curb, therefore we prefer to be proactive,” Funda added.

Donated equipment will increase response time to crime scenes and assist with the tracking of suspected poachers, duplicating Skukuza’s Mission Area Joint Operations Command (MAJOC) centre.

in addition, a new mounted ranger unit with endurance horses and skilled riders has been established in Phalaborwa. Regional ranger Derick Mashale said horses give rangers a better vantage point for spotting suspects and allow them to cover greater distances in less time. The SANParks Honorary Rangers donated specialist equipment required by the teams, acquired through various fundraising initiatives.

Environmental monitors received bicycles to make it easier to patrol the eastern border fences of the park, where they search for signs of incursions. A Cessna plane from Skukuza was moved to Phalaborwa, and pilot Jaco Mol said this will cut response time in half when incidents are reported in the north. International cricketer Kevin Pietersen raised R3 million for the Forward Looking Infrared System to assist with anti-poaching initiatives in the park.

Written by: René de Klerk

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