How rhino protectors in South Africa have become a major threat to the species

The long-awaited trial of a star wildlife ranger on poaching-related charges illustrates the extent of criminal syndicates’ reach in Kruger National Park.

By Tara Keir
Published 7 Jul 2021, 11:58 BST
kruger-national-park-former-ranger
Rodney Landela, pictured in 2014 on an anti-poaching patrol, was arrested in 2016 for allegedly killing a rhino and taking its horn. A highly respected ranger who rose through the ranks quickly, he was a contender to be the park’s next head ranger, many colleagues thought.
Photograph by James Oatway, Getty Images

A sweet mix of coffee and rooibos tea wafts a familiar comfort into the aircraft hangar at the headquarters of Kruger National Park, in Skukuza, South Africa. A languid atmosphere prevails in the lull between the action that erupts when a report of rhino poachers is radioed in. 

Don English, a regional ranger helping lead the park’s fight against poaching, is settled into a faded armchair in the hangar’s small sitting room, leg folded across his knee. At the time of this interview, in July 2019, English oversaw the area in Kruger that’s home to more rhinos than in any other section of the 7,500-square-mile park, which borders Mozambique.  

In conversation, his words usually tumble out softly. But at the mention of a former friend and colleague, his tone sharpens, and his face hardens. 

“Rodney Landela, I could share and trust him with anything. Anything,” English says of the ranger he mentored. “Since he’s been arrested, I’ve never seen him or uttered a word to him.” I’ve had no opportunity to, he says, “but also, I don’t want to see him.” 

English’s brow furrows, as he reflects on the shattered illusion of what he once thought was a steadfast friendship. 

“He was swine.” His words pierced the room.

A southern white rhinoceros stands in the bush in South Africa's Kruger National Park, which is home to the largest population of wild rhinos in the world.
Photograph by Godong, Getty Images

“How dare you,” he seethes, as if addressing Landela, who’s at home on bail in a village north of Kruger. English enunciates each word, and the caustic silences in between burn deeper than the words themselves.   

Rodney Landela had been considered a success story at Kruger. He was “the crowned prince,” as English puts it. In the span of 15 years, Landela worked his way up from field ranger to section ranger to regional ranger, and many of his colleagues saw him as the lead contender for the park’s next head ranger—potentially the park’s first Black African to hold that position. 

But just after his promotion to regional ranger, it all came crashing down.  

On July 27, 2016, Landela’s subordinates caught him fleeing the scene of a dead rhino. A bullet from a park-issued rifle and a pair of Landela’s shoes covered in the dead rhino’s blood linked him to the animal. He was arrested and faces charges that include illegal hunting, theft of a rhino horn, disposing of evidence, and escaping from custody. 

Landela’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment, nor has he or Landela made any public statements. He pleaded not guilty.  

Landela first went on trial in 2017, but when the magistrate hearing the case died in 2018, before the trial had been completed, South African law required that it begin again from the start. 

After more than four years and multiple delays, the trial was set to begin on July 6 in the Skukuza Regional Court, also known as the “rhino court,” for its successful track record of prosecuting rhino poachers in Kruger. On July 5, it was postponed again when the magistrate granted the defense’s request for another delay given the country’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases. (Read about how another rhino poaching trial in South Africa was delayed 17 times.)

If convicted of all charges, Landela could face up to 90 years in prison, according to lead prosecutor Ansie Venter. 

Meanwhile the rangers of Kruger National Park have been left grappling with the reality of what English says this high-profile arrest affirms. “Rodney was just the final nail in the coffin. Some of the best rangers in the park now, I know are involved,” he says. “Everyone that I look at, I don’t know who I can trust. I don’t trust anybody.” 

Landela’s arrest and trial mark a continuation of Kruger’s growing struggle with corruption among rangers, and it is one of the most significant cases to date, shedding light on just how deeply poaching syndicates have infiltrated the ranks of the park’s rhino protectors. Between 2009 and 2021, 42 staff members were dismissed in response to alleged involvement in rhino poaching, according to Cathy Dreyer, the park’s newly appointed head ranger. 

But this number only reflects those who have been caught, and it’s likely many more staff are involved, whether as informants and facilitators for poachers, or as more active participants, says Ken Maggs, the former head ranger of Kruger, who retired earlier this year after 18 years in the role. 

In February, Kruger reported that rhino numbers had dropped 70 percent during the past decade, from over 10,000 in 2010 to just under 4,000 today, primarily because of poaching. Demand for rhino horn comes mainly from China and Southeast Asia, where it’s made into ornamental carvings and used in traditional medicine, despite a lack of scientific evidence to support its efficacy. Worth more than its weight in gold, the role of rhino horn as a status symbol has further accelerated demand. (Go inside the dark world of rhino horn trafficking.)

These numbers have come as no surprise to Kruger’s rangers and the conservationists working alongside them. In 2019, staff told National Geographic that rhinos would likely be poached out of the park in as few as two or three years. Rangers have managed to avert such a tragedy, and rhino poaching incidents have declined for the fifth consecutive year. But it’s the rangers’ very success in keeping poachers out of the park that has led rhino horn trafficking syndicates to shift tactics and enlist insiders as accomplices. 

Gathering information, recruiting informants, and drafting poachers from the pool of park employees is now imperative for their success, say English and other rangers. During the past decade or so, syndicates have tested and refined their approach, and they’ve developed the ability to convince or coerce rangers up and down the hierarchy to participate. 

These syndicates are led by highly organized criminals who run an elaborate network of rhino poachers, informants, and traffickers. In South Africa, there are at least several of these groups, each of which oversees different poaching operations based in townships adjacent to Kruger National Park.  

Arresting their boss 

On a dry July afternoon in Kruger four years ago, rangers in section 37 were on a routine patrol amid a rustling sea of mopani leaves ablaze in their winter oranges, golden yellows, and reds when they heard gunshots. 

They rushed toward the sound to investigate, according to court testimony in September 2017 by Lucky Ndlovu, a Kruger ranger with more than 25 years’ experience. As they drove toward where they’d heard the gunshots, the rangers came upon two men running toward a pickup truck parked close by. When the pair jumped in the car and sped off, the rangers saw it—a freshly killed white rhino with its horns cut off. 

With Ndlovu and the others in pursuit, a different group of rangers called in to assist came from another direction and cut off the fleeing car. When the suspects emerged, the rangers were shocked. It was their boss, Landela, and the head veterinary technician stationed at Kruger, Kenneth Muchocho (sometimes reported as “Motshotso”). 

At first, Ndlovu recalled in emotional testimony, he thought maybe they shot the rhino by accident. But while they were waiting for the police, the park’s environmental crime investigation unit, and a helicopter to arrive to search for suspects, Landela grew agitated, pacing around looking “unhappy, not as usual,” Ndlovu said. Ndlovu testified that after the pair were intercepted, Landela climbed into Ndlovu’s truck and switched the radio off and on, making it difficult for the rangers on duty to communicate with each other. 

“If you sign on with these guys, you signed a death warrant... It’s like if you get into the mafia, you don’t get out. ”

Don English

Landela began insisting that the rangers search in the opposite direction of where Muchocho had driven off, urging that the poachers would have gone that way, Ndlovu testified. At this point, Ndlovu said, the rangers agreed among themselves to to ignore their boss’s instructions because they’d begun to suspect Landela and Muchocho. 

When the helicopter arrived, Ndlovu motioned to a colleague inside and uttered words that a subordinate never would have expected to say—that his boss, Landela, and Muchocho were the poachers they were searching for. 

Landela and Muchocho were arrested, according to Ndlovu, who broke down in tears at this point in his testimony. Ndlovu recalled noticing Landela was wearing different shoes than he’d seen earlier, and soon, his shoes, soaked in rhino blood, were discovered in Muchocho’s truck. Later, the cut-off and discarded horn was found nearby and a bullet from a park-issued rifle was recovered from the rhino’s body.

Muchocho, like Landela, faces charges that include illegal hunting and theft of a rhino horn. He pleaded not guilty and is being tried alongside Landela. Muchocho’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment, nor did he make a statement for his client at the time of arrest. 

It’s unclear exactly when Landela’s alleged involvement in poaching could have begun and why. Landela hasn’t spoken to his former colleagues since his arrest. Nor did he give statements to the police, to investigators, to the press, or say anything during the departmental hearing with his employer, SANParks, the organisation that oversees South Africa’s national parks. 

Landela had everything a syndicate could want from an insider, say his fellow rangers: access to confidential information about ranger deployments and rhino locations, the ability to help move weapons in and rhino horn out, and influence over anti-poaching strategy. 

He’d earned the trust of his colleagues and his team, which included five section rangers and roughly a hundred field rangers. Normally Landela would know where field rangers had been deployed for the day, and he had the authority to assign deployments himself. But on the day of the rhino killing, the deployed rangers changed their plans at the last minute and forgot to inform Landela, according to rangers from that section. Landela, therefore, likely wasn’t aware that Ndlovu’s team would be close enough to hear gunshots, says one ranger.

How syndicates recruit rangers  

Recruiters for poaching syndicates are shrewd and persuasive. Some rangers try to keep their profession a secret to avoid becoming a target, they say. “It is better for people to not know that I am a ranger,” says one, who asked to remain anonymous for his safety. “For my own protection and that of my family.” 

And some rangers avoid going to bars, where recruiters often make their first overtures, English says.

Recruitment of a lower-level ranger, according to English and others, may follow this pattern: After a ranger returning from a multiday, round-the-clock deployment heads out of the park, he rewards himself with a cold beer at a local bar. Exhausted, he lets his guard down as a fellow patron offers to buy him another. They get to talking, and soon the ranger realises his new acquaintance is fishing for information about where he was recently deployed and is beginning to make veiled threats. He hints that he knows where the ranger’s family lives and where and when his wife drops the kids off at school. Anxious sweat on the ranger’s palms mixes with the condensation on the chilled bottle. 

If a recruiter isn’t successful with beers and subtle threats, he may use the lure of money, which can be harder to resist. “A ranger wouldn’t earn in a year what they would get from syndicate,” former head ranger Maggs says. “Salaries within the government sector will never compete with the criminal enterprise.” Kruger’s field rangers typically earn between £15 and £20 a day.

“Everyone you know has financial problems or financial needs, so they will target a ranger [who] might need new tires for his car,” English says. The recruiter may offer to pay for the tires, but then the ranger is expected to pay it back with information. “If you don’t pay back, you get killed. If you sign on with these guys, you signed a death warrant,” English says. “It’s like if you get into the mafia, you don’t get out.” 

(In late 2019, a park ranger suspended on suspicion of poaching alleged that English tortured him. English was suspended for two months while the park investigated, and during his absence, at least 50 rhinos were poached in his region, National Geographic reported in 2020. A park spokesperson said that one strategy of criminal syndicates “is to try and come up with allegations” to remove the most effective rangers.) 

It might be more than tires, Maggs adds: A car. Money to build a house. The community respect that comes with affluence.

That, says Bruce Leslie, who leads Kruger’s special operations anti-poaching rangers,  can go a long way. “Many rangers come from areas that have become poacher havens, managed by that ‘Robin Hood’ character,” he says.

Those involved in the illegal rhino horn trade are often seen as the heroes because they’re the ones bringing money into the communities, he says. When the park was established in 1926, some communities were forcibly removed from the land. That helped cultivate a sense of resentment, as well as a divide between impoverished communities on one side of the fence and the highly resourced conservation efforts and tourism investments on the other, according to Kruger expert Jane Carruthers, an environmental historian with the University of South Africa. 

Most people living near the park have never seen a rhino or visited Kruger. They see little benefit from live rhinos—tourism revenue rarely trickle into their communities—and are more likely to be familiar with the quick payoff from a dead one. 

Fear of betrayal

When one local veteran ranger started at Kruger more than 30 years ago, uniforms didn’t include camouflage fatigues or a firearm. The war against poaching hadn’t yet begun. 

Now in a position overseeing dozens of rangers, he asked to remain anonymous for his safety. The most challenging days on the job used to be finding animals snagged by wire snares, suffering a slow, painful death to become meat on someone’s table. That was hard to see, he says, but it doesn’t compare with the pressure of dealing with inside involvement—a betrayal he calls “the single most difficult challenge in my work.” (Read more about the daily traumas anti-poaching rangers face.)

If he and fellow rangers had been fending off poachers coming from the outside, he says, rhino killings would have stopped long ago. But when it’s rangers wearing the uniform who are complicit—that, he says, is a whole different level. Of the roughly 20 rangers in his section, he says as few as five are trustworthy. That small group must carry the workload of the entire team. 

That is not sustainable, English says. 

The persistent fear of betrayal takes a psychological toll as well. “I would rather go and work on my own because I don’t want anyone at my back,” the veteran ranger says. He’s worried a corrupt colleague on patrol with him could be paid by a syndicate to shoot him in the back. Adding to that pressure is the demoralising effect of seeing colleagues fired or arrested for alleged involvement with poaching. 

More than anything, English says, Landela’s arrest crushed morale. 

Looking for answers

After almost five years of waiting, Don English and Kruger’s other rangers may finally get answers from Landela. What pushed a ranger of his rank and promise to betrayal? Did syndicates have something on him? Was it simple greed? 

“I cannot say whether he will testify,” Venter, the prosecutor, says, “but let me say that in all the years I have prosecuted rhino cases, I haven’t had a single rhino-related trial where the accused did not testify.”

Many at Kruger hope that the Landela case may finally provide the momentum and political will to crack down on inside involvement. “Integrity management,” or putting in place methods to safeguard ethical standards of an organization, is not a new concept for private game reserves in South Africa. Some use polygraph testing to root out staff who may be involved with rhino poaching, but such measures have been difficult to implement in Kruger and other national parks. 

Maggs tried to start polygraph testing during his time as Kruger’s head ranger, but “the employee contracts are thrown at us at every mention of integrity testing.” Those contracts, as well as the union representing South Africa’s national parks staff, do not allow polygraph or integrity testing to be put in contracts if it’s to be used as the impetus for repercussions such as suspensions or firings.

Polygraphs aren’t always reliable, and other senior members of Kruger’s staff have suggested that a more feasible solution lies in a holistic plan focused on professional development, such as trainings in tracking, tactical techniques, and defense skills; psychological well-being; salary increases; and rewards for rangers believed to be operating with integrity. 

It can be difficult to predict who is susceptible to corruption, but senior Kruger staff say that creating a work environment where rangers feel supported, valued, and that their demanding efforts are meaningful may aid in Kruger’s crackdown on inside involvement.

Maggs says he’d been presented with “all the silver bullets in the world” that purported to offer technological solutions to the poaching crisis: drones, infrared-equipped helicopters, and other technology to assist in the monitoring of wildlife and detection of poachers. But, he emphasizes, “you cannot replace the boots on the ground.” 

In the face of inside involvement, those boots on the ground—the rangers who are operating with integrity—will continue to burn out as they shoulder the responsibility to protect the world’s largest remaining population of wild rhinos from criminal syndicates, which, for now, include their own. 

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Tara Keir’s work on this story. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers.

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