Story and photos by Rob Krott

It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon on December 24, 1994, when two South African game rangers sitting in their camp along the Umfolozi River, heard the shots. Running toward the shooting they stopped in the bush, panting. Four kilometers later they heard another burst of gunfire. Now having a better idea of the source of the shooting they crawled up to a creek feeding the Umfolozi. Two men were sawing the horn off a poached rhino. One of the rangers fired a warning shot and the poachers fled. The rangers split up and ran through the bush in pursuit, but this time after presumably armed rhino poachers. A third poacher was spotted and shooting broke out.

The firefight continued even as it began raining. With dusk approaching the rangers soon broke off the chase. The crime scene was inspected in the morning. There amid the AK-47 cases littering the ground the rangers found one dead poacher, a hunting rifle, a shotgun and the carcasses of four white rhinos.

With millions of dollars of ivory, rhino horn and exotic animals at stake, protecting endangered species would be a demanding and dangerous job for any law enforcement agency. In South Africa, a country rich in wildlife, the illegal traffic in endangered flora and fauna seems to increase every day. Eager buyers for endangered species of birds, snakes and plants as well as valuable ivory and rhino horn are found in nearly every corner of the world. Little wonder the annual value of wildlife crime now exceeds $8 billion USD. This is especially embarrassing for a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the international controlling body for endangered species, which came into existence in 1982.

A replay of the poaching in Angola has been feared, where one of Africa's largest elephant populations, along with a once-healthy rhino population, were virtually destroyed by roving bands of soldiers and poachers armed with automatic weapons. At one time there were documented instances of involvement in the illegal wildlife trade by some South African government officials, or simply indifference toward protecting certain endangered species in the country. The book Contraband: South Africa and the International Trade in Ivory and Rhino Horn, by South African investigative reporter De Wet Potgieter, uncovered the conspiracy and created widespread controversy. It was clear that South Africa's elephants and rhinos were being decimated, often with government collusion. Such is not the case now.

The law enforcement professionals who turned the tide in South Africa's war against poachers are the agents of the Endangered Species Protection Unit (ESPU). This special police unit was tasked to combat illegal trafficking in wildlife. Set up in 1989 by the South African Police Service (SAPS) as an outgrowth of the stock theft unit, the ESPU focused initially on halting the poaching and smuggling of rhino horn and elephant ivory.

Officially, the ESPU was "Formed with the overall vision to ensure South Africa's natural heritage is preserved through professional law enforcement. The ESPU's mission is to curtail the international trade in endangered species, which uses the Republic of South Africa as a conduit, by adopting a multinational approach to, through the early identification of crime trends, initiate pro-active operations that will release the maximum potential of this unit. The specialized functions of the ESPU include investigating and preventing any criminal conduct or endeavor thereto in respect of the hunting, importation, exportation, possession, buying and selling of such endangered species or any product thereof, as well as the smuggling and illegal dumping of radioactive and toxic waste. ESPU also investigates African art and cultural art cultural and historical artifact theft."

Since 1989, ESPU has conducted over 1,000 investigations into wildlife crime and seized smuggled ivory, rhino horn, marine species, rare plants and endangered birds worth tens of millions of dollars.

What you have just read is just a part of the great article by Rob Krott. You also missed a number of great photographs taken by Rob that are included in the summer 2001 issue of the Alberta Game Warden magazine. If you would like to read more articles like this one just order a subscription.