Eyes on the Veld

Deep in South Africa's interior sprawls Kruger National Park, the crown jewel of game preserves with 2,500 lions, 2,750 rhinos, 8,500 elephants, 30,000 zebras, 100,000 impalas...and 650 miles of boundary wire keeping animals in and poachers out. Welcome to the postmodern Eden, where everyone behaves—or else.

Nov 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

In the mid-1970s, when the political chaos wrought by decolonization throughout most of Africa trickled down into nature conservation and poachers began to plunder the elephant and rhinoceros herds, Kruger knew how to respond. The park was, after all, an inextricable part of the culture, and in South Africa the white minority—less than 15 percent of the population—had proved extraordinarily adept at building and maintaining fences, real and metaphoric. Thus the safeguarding of what Kruger faithful refer to as "wilderness values" was left to men of action like Ken Maggs.

The trim, no-nonsense leader of the national park system's Environmental Crimes Investigation Service, Maggs has been the mastermind behind Kruger's war against poaching since 1994. The walls of his office, set off on an unmarked dirt road outside Skukuza, are covered with maps of Kruger dotted with colored pins indicating poaching activity. Charts display the black market value of rhino horns and elephant tusks, and the kinds of firearms used by poachers. "Instead of waiting for the criminal to come to our national parks, we go out and look for him," Maggs said. "We try to disorient him, disrupt him, eliminate him." Maggs has a degree in wildlife management and did police work for South Africa in the former Rhodesia, so, as he said, "I've kind of amalgamated my two interests." His task force employs spies to infiltrate suspected bands of poachers and pays informants in the black townships surrounding Kruger for tips on criminal schemes that are being hatched. "We've been very, very successful," he said.


Indeed, in 1998, five white rhinos out of a population of about 2,500 and only three of Kruger's 8,500 or so elephants were killed by poachers. "Even a single loss is unacceptable to us," Maggs said. "If you don't respond, the situation can get out of hand very quickly." There have been gun battles in the veld, Maggs acknowledges, and poachers—typically poor ex-military men from Mozambique with good knowledge of the bush and access to firearms—have been killed.

The commandants of the park's security force are the 22 section rangers, each of whom is responsible for controlling vast tracts of land, up to 250,000 acres apiece, with only a team of laborers and a squad of eight to 12 field rangers. Gertenbach calls them "the eyes on the veld." One morning, I drove north from park headquarters to a deserted outpost called Houtboschrand to meet Gert Erasmus, the 51-year-old ranger who oversees a 230,000-acre section in the narrow center of the park, an area with few roads and no tourist facilities. A bullet-headed man with a gray crew cut, Erasmus was wearing military fatigues with the pants legs tucked into black combat boots. He had little time for conversation. He had been roused late the previous night, he said, to investigate an incident. A van driver had been transporting an ailing park employee back from a visit to the doctor when he collided with a rhinoceros. Erasmus had two immediate tasks at hand: to determine the condition of the rhino, and to see if the driver's actions required disciplinary response.

I hopped into the passenger seat of Erasmus's Toyota 4Runner. A hand-tooled leather rifle case lay across the dashboard. Behind me, in the backseat, sat a silent and queasy-looking black man—the sick linen-room worker who had been in the van when the accident occurred. Field rangers had been following the rhino's tracks all morning, Erasmus said, but hadn't yet located the animal. There was no blood trail at the site of impact, which was a good sign, as was the absence of vultures in the sky. "Most game is extremely resilient," Erasmus noted, peering in the rearview mirror at the man in the backseat. "Unlike people."

We drove to the accident scene. Erasmus took out his rifle and instructed me and the worker to follow him as he measured the skid marks in long strides. "Stay close to me," he ordered. "We don't want lions eating anyone while we're walking about." The driver, Erasmus surmised, might have been drifting off to sleep; the length of the skid indicated he had been speeding. "I can't say officially," said Erasmus, unofficially, "but discipline will surely be called for."

We got back into the car, drove for awhile, and then pulled off the road and waited by a dry riverbed for Erasmus's field rangers to report to him. He relaxed considerably, pointing out wild figs and a thick-trunked sausage tree, commented on the quality of the grasses, and observed that lala palm trees like the one in whose shade we were resting provided a potent beer for local Africans. Erasmus was a naturalist with a big gun.

Soon, a pickup truck pulled up with a group of rangers, each carrying a .760 R1 automatic rifle capable of putting down a charging elephant and making a mess of charging poachers. They'd tracked the rhino all morning and found nothing, a good indication that it hadn't been badly harmed. All the field rangers in Kruger—who are organized as sergeants, corporals, and privates—are black. Erasmus bantered with his troops in Tsonga, a local language. There was evident affection between the commander and his staff, and it was just as evident who was in charge. I asked him whether the application of a military model of management to a national park seemed excessive, or at least incongruous. "This park is man's creation," he explained. "We put up a fence and we created something. Now we have no choice. We have to manage it."