The skull of a huge bull buffalo carries the grisly weapon of its demise: a rusted snare that was wrapped around the animal’s head and which had embedded itself in the jawbone. Picture: ED STODDARD
The skull of a huge bull buffalo carries the grisly weapon of its demise: a rusted snare that was wrapped around the animal’s head and which had embedded itself in the jawbone. Picture: ED STODDARD

The bull buffalo had been a brute, a rippling block of muscle crowned by enormous horns. But when the lions closed in, he was easy prey, exhausted and suffering from a searing pain that only death could end.

The buffalo, whose skull is now bleaching in the sun on the grounds of the Kruger National Park’s K9 unit, fell victim to a new wave of poaching sweeping the reserve: the use of snares to feed a burgeoning market in bushmeat and animal parts for muti. 

Coming on the heels of the rhino poaching crisis, the snaring surge is a new battlefront in the wildlife wars and one that suggests poverty and joblessness remain entrenched around the park.

“We believe strongly that there is a bushmeat trade developing outside the park. It’s linked to the general lawlessness challenge outside the park,” Glenn Phillips, the Kruger’s managing executive, said.

“According to the last census about 2-million people were living on our western boundary with an unemployment rate of between 40% and 60%.  So what are people going to do? They are going to look at alternative ways of making a living,” he said.

Local police and park officials have launched a wide-ranging investigation into the commercialisation of the bushmeat trade, which Phillips said is likely linked to organised crime.

“Previously there was subsistence poaching, but the scale at the moment tells us it is more than that,” he said.

The numbers, rough as they are, bear this out: Johan de Beer, head of the Kruger K9 unit, said that in 2014 about 180 snares were collected in the southwest boundary area of the park. In 2018, that number has  soared to 1,600.

Some of this may stem from stepped-up patrols — you would expect more rangers on the ground to find more snares — but that would hardly account for an almost tenfold increase in four years. 

De Beer showed a group of journalists stacks of seized snares, some fashioned from copper cables pilfered from Eskom, making Kruger fauna among the casualties of the utility’s mounting woes. 

Such snares would typically be set on animal trails, with a noose erected over the trail and attached to a tree. They are designed to hold or choke the creature, tightening as it instinctively tries to pull away. 

The buffalo’s skull still carries the tool of its demise — a rusted cable wrapped around it that was embedded in the bone below the animal’s mouth. 

De Beer  says it was probably there for about three months after the animal somehow broke free, an agonising copper necklace that would have caused infection and made eating increasingly difficult — until a pride of lions put it out of its misery in September.

Such animals are also a potential danger to tourists visiting the park. A buffalo naturally has an ornery disposition; inflict it with a grave injury and it will become demonic. 

Buffalo, kudu, zebra and the like would be taken for bushmeat, while leopard and lion carcasses are coveted for muti. 

Ironically, the increase in snaring is occurring against the backdrop of a decline in rhino poaching — but the two trends may be related. 

The number of rhinos killed for their horns in SA to supply Asian demand peaked at 1,215 in 2014. It has been falling since, with about 500 rhinos poached in the first eight months of 2018, a 26% fall from the same period in 2017, according to the department of environmental affairs. 

Rhino poaching in the Kruger itself hit a record high of 827 in 2014 and has since been in decline, with 504 recorded in 2017. 

This is attributable to increased anti-poaching efforts but also to the stark fact that there are fewer rhinos in the park now due to a decade of intense poaching pressure and recent prolonged droughts. The Kruger Park was estimated to have about 5,000 rhinos in 2017, down from about 9,000 in 2013.

The fall in the population, combined with intensive efforts to contain the scourge, means there are fewer opportunities for rhino poaching. This may explain why poachers have moved into lucrative new territory, snaring far more abundant species and feeding a local market in which demand clearly exists.

“There is a shift to other species. For a rhino poacher to locate a rhino now takes a lot longer so the risks are much greater,” said Annette Hübschle, a  senior researcher with the Global Risk Governance Programme at the University of Cape Town, who has studied community-wildlife issues around the park.

Phillips noted that some of the rhino kingpins have been arrested and so “the foot soldiers are looking at alternative means of income”. 

In the Kruger bush, a luta continua.