How Kruger lost 70% of its rhinos

By Jamie Joseph | Saving the Wild

“Shocking official statistics have emerged which show that the world’s single-largest population of rhinos — those living in the flagship Kruger National Park — has been slashed by between 66% and 70% over the past decade, mainly due to the unrelenting wave of butchery by international horn-poaching syndicates.”
-Tony Carnie, Daily Maverick | 28 January 2021.

There are just 268 black rhinos left in Kruger | © Jamie Joseph, Saving the Wild.

Syndicates operate on a bedrock of corruption, and yet the just released SANParks annual report buried the alarming stats amongst 264 pages, and only once mentioned the word ‘corruption’. Referring to page 69:

“Internal corruption and collusion relating to wildlife crime by SANParks personnel continues to pose a clear and present threat to the park, in particular to the rhino and elephant populations and to the increasing poisoning incidents in the park. This scourge severely impacts staff and anti-poaching operations, as well as SANParks’ reputation.”

Conservation lives and dies on political will. Saving the Wild has been exposing corruption and pursuing crime bosses since the start of 2016, and we’ve never been wrong. But we are asking journalists to go beyond the press releases and go beyond the annual reports, and ask SANParks Management the hard questions, because that is where the truth lives. 

For outsiders looking in, it’s important to understand that South Africa is home to the vast majority of Africa’s rhino population, and it is also one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Many who yield power have sold off our state resources like a game of Monopoly, and all of this is being played out right now, for the whole world to watch in horror through the Zondo Commission into State Capture, with former president Jacob Zuma being told this week to obey all summons and testify.

Image credit: Cartoonist Brandan Reynolds for Business Live

I recently read the revelatory book No Longer Whispering to Power, the incredible story of South Africa’s former Public Protector and crusader against corruption, Thuli Madonsela. The deepest disappointment of my life was when Professor Madonsela’s term ended soon after she met with me in 2016 and opened up a preliminary investigation into corruption enabling rhino poaching. If we had just had more time back then, there wouldn’t be a rhino crisis present day.

Below is an extract from the biography, written by Thankeka Gqubule, and it will put in context the real challenge facing the last of the rhinos of South Africa:

“What distinguished the early days of the Zuma administration is that such conduct appeared rampant, frequent and brazen, and the Zuma administration appeared to have no compelling societal vision. It seemed to hold power for its own sake, for the economic spoils alone. The ideology of Nelson Mandela’s administration united the country and fostered the bonds borne of forgiveness after centuries of acrimony and war. Thabo Mbeki’s administration elevated the ideal of an African age of enlightenment and progress. The African Renaissance mission may have been a doomed one, but it was unifying and compelling nonetheless. The ideological vacuum at the heart of Zuma’s administration has robbed his tenure of any mystique behind which corruption could be veiled. Once in power, Zuma and his foot soldiers set their sights on dismantling the Directorate of Special Operations, the elite crime – fighting unit popularly known as the Scorpions. This corruption-buster had the reputation of touching even the untouchables, and its rapid disbanding was regarded as a move as tactical as it was vengeful.”

Zuma is out, and President Cyril Ramaphosa assumed office on 15 February 2018, but in his three years as head of state, I have only ever once heard him mention the plight of the rhino. It was just after the 2018 passing of Environment Minister Edna Molewa where he applauded her at the funeral by saying, “She had promised us that rhino would not go extinct on her watch, and this has been proven to be both prescient and true.”

Well Mr President, if extinction is your benchmark, we are certainly on the right track here in South Africa; a bloody graveyard for rhinos.

Kruger rhino chokes to death in a pool of blood
Deputy Minister of Justice John Jeffery

High ranking members of state have stolen our country’s resources so that they can swoon in obscene extravagance. If they are willing to let their greed literally kill countless thousands of humans who are besieged in poverty and starvation, do you really think they’re going to care about animals?

The government tells the media that rhino poaching is a high priority crime. Its rhetoric. The state has put systems in place to ensure we cannot save this icon of the ice age. Just recently the Presidential pardon saw 87 poachers released from jail, some have been re-arrested while poaching, and many are still out there; repeat offenders killing rhinos.

There is not one person who yields power in South Africa who is willing to stand up for the rhino and say enough is enough. For the crisis to improve it needs to improve from within the Ministry of Justice, and Deputy Minister John Jeffery has made his position crystal clear, and I quote, “We don’t like to fill our prisons.” – this in response to me suggesting to him on a phone call back in 2017 that we introduce a minimum sentence for rhino poaching as a way to halt the slaughter. And this conversation happened just after I exposed the Blood Rhino Blacklist – magistrates on his watch, who have for years been taking bribes on poaching and rape. To this day, these despicable humans continue to run the courts under his leadership. Fact.

Here is the state’s formula for continuing the rapid slaughter of rhinos:


There is an antidote to this poisonous environment, which will be presented in the conclusion. 

There are two types of poachers; those who enter the park, and those on the inside – traitors pretending to be rangers – and these are by far the most deadly. I have never heard of a traitor being convicted, and worse, Kruger actually re-instates these traitors. 

Rewind to a story I published on Saving the Wild in March 2019, ‘Traitor among Rangers’

13 March 2019, Kruger National Park: I stood outside of Skukuza court observing the scene. A crowd of friends and family had gathered, waiting for the two Kruger field rangers to be released on bail.

On Tuesday, 26 February, SANParks reported that “Kruger National Park (KNP) Rangers conducting anti-poaching operations in the south of the Park arrested two SANParks Field Ranger colleagues for alleged involvement in poaching activities. During the arrest supported by the SAPS, a heavy calibre firearm, ammunition and poaching related equipment was confiscated.”

When assessing the rhino crisis, it is fair judgement to say that one corrupt ranger is worse than five poachers. Saving the Wild leads the crusade against corruption; police, judges, magistrates, lawyers, all have been in our firing line, but exposing rangers turns the stomach into knots; and yet it must be done.

We have a special interest in this case as the Saving the Wild intel network had these two young men on our radar as conspiring with Petros Mabuza aka “Mr Big”, the alleged Kruger kingpin arrested (with our assistance) in a Hawks Police sting operation last year. And when a man wearing a red ‘Count Pushkin’ shirt slunk up to the ranger’s legal counsel and pulled out of his pocket a huge wad of R100 notes, suddenly the air stunk of Mr Big once more. Bail was only set at R5000 each, but the money man had come prepared, for whatever it took.


This is just one of many examples where traitors are put back to work so that they can continue to cause havoc from the inside. And when brave rangers try to expose the corruption, they are persecuted for crimes they did not commit. The standard delay tactic when a poacher or traitor is caught, is to immediately claim assault. And if there are any white rangers involved they claim assault, and they play the racist card. It doesn’t matter that there are no physical marks of assault, and it doesn’t matter that there is no proof of racism, just the mere fact that these traitors claimed it will create what is known as deflection.

Our best men are put on the bench while there is an enquiry. As the months drag on the syndicates then hit Kruger harder than ever, and a lot more rhinos die because SANParks management do not have the backbone, nor the political will to protect our rangers from this constant persecution. 

We are dealing with rhino horn, a product worth gram for gram more than diamonds or cocaine – which is outrageous considering rhino horn is nothing but keratin – but this is the absurdity we are faced with, and ranger recruitment has become a breeding ground for criminals.

The private sector is using polygraph / integrity testing as a very effective tool to root out corruption – fail twice and you’re out – its part of the ranger service agreement, and Sabi Sands and adjacent reserves to Kruger have seen poaching plummet after introducing polygraphs. 

In Kruger, not only are polygraphs voluntary, but even if a ranger does fail the test, nothing is done about it unless in extreme circumstances such as supporting evidence in a criminal case. There is a direct correlation between the devastating drop in rhino population and a sharp increase in traitors working in Kruger National Park. And it’s written in the tracks.

More and more rangers are not seeing the incursion, only the exit tracks and a butchered rhino. The enemy is within, and growing stronger all the time.

In October there was a sting operation with three SANParks staff members caught with fresh horns. In response, Kruger National Park managing executive Gareth Coleman said in a statement to the press that “SANParks remains committed to doing everything in its power to stop poaching.”

This statement is false, and it is perpetuating this false sense of security. The fact is that most of the internal poaching doesn’t even make it to the press, and corruption in Kruger is the worst it’s ever been. Rangers can fight poachers, but they cannot fight traitors within their own ranks. They cannot plan operations for fear of leaks, and the message SANParks management is sending out to the good guys is why even bother…and the message to the bad guys is: keep calm and carry on.

Alleged rhino poaching kingpin of Kruger, Petros Mabuza, was arrested not once, but twice in 2018, and both times he got bail! Then, leading into Mabuza’s trial, police investigating officer Lt Colonel Leroy Bruwer was assassinated. I have ever reason to believe that Mabuza was behind the hit. 

Rewind to a story I published in July 2018 on Saving the Wild, ‘Rhino Mafia, Dirty Cops’

Prior to the High Court granting Mabuza bail, he was being held in Nelspruit prison, and when he walked through the cells, the police officers would salute him. He was still King behind bars. From Skukuza to Hazyiew, Nelspruit to White River, his power stretches far and wide across the Mpumalanga province.

Saving the Wild assisted in the arrest of Mabuza. The buying of the horn took place in a vehicle stinking of blood money. In a debriefing, one of our informers explained to me how after Mabuza handed over the R280 000 for the rhino horns, he then escorted him and the undercover Hawks police agent to White River and boasted, “Don’t worry about a thing. Nothing will happen to you. I hold this town in my hand.”

OUTCOME: Three years ON, and Mabuza is yet to stand trial. 

Dumisani Gwala – Blood Rhino Blacklist

And it’s even worse in Zululand where the alleged rhino poaching kingpin, Dumisani Gwala, has been making a mockery of the courts since 2014. So long as Mabuza and Gwala are out on bail, poaching syndicate gangs will continue to operate.

Further reading: Rhino poachers, rapists and the blood money trial of Dumisani Gwala Imagine a country where thugs become judges and magistrates and prosecutors, drunk on power, and the blood money from rapists and rhino poachers fuels their lifestyle. 

Below are quotes from a National Geographic investigative report / August 2020. The world looks on while nothing changes…

Despite Skukuza Regional Court’s rapid and dramatic success, on August 28, 2019, Naomi Engelbrecht, who administers regional and district courts in Mpumalanga province, ordered the court’s entire roll of some 72 cases transferred to Mhala Regional Court, more than 50 miles away.

Experts point to the abrupt closure of South Africa’s special “rhino court,” in Skukuza, as a likely example of syndicate influence. Also suspicious is the sidelining of some of the most effective anti-poaching personnel, including specific rangers, investigators, and prosecutors. In addition, wildlife advocates also point to the failure of the South African Police Service to renew a [RhODIS] contract for DNA testing of rhino horn evidence, among other government inactions.

“We have a handful of diehards doing their best, but they’re surrounded by indifference, incompetence, or complicity…with potentially catastrophic consequences for rhinos.”
-Elise Serfontein, Stop Rhino Poaching, a well informed non profit.

Last year, on February 24, when the high court’s three-judge panel heard oral arguments, Engelbrecht wasn’t present. Instead, Kgama Shai, a criminal defense attorney representing suspected poachers who would appear before the court, spoke on her behalf.


As shocking as this sounds, this is just a slither of what we’ve been dealing with in Zululand for half a decade. The courts are captured in Kwazulu Natal, and Saving the Wild has been exposing corrupt magistrates since January 2016. That then led to the Blood Rhino Blacklist, a crooked cabal of justice officials, and in October 2018 the Ministry of Justice was forced to suspend KZN Court President Eric Nzimande. To this day, he has not been fired or arrested, and he continues to enjoy the comforts of home while receiving full pay. 

The investigation is complete, there are more than 120 charges against Nzimande, and the Magistrates Commission hasn’t even set a disciplinary hearing. We are dealing with an alleged syndicate of corrupt magistrates, and if ever there was proof that justice has failed in South Africa, the proof is in this investigation.

The real victory in the war on poaching will happen in the courts. If there is no justice, rangers will keep fighting the same poachers who get arrested, get off, and then return to the parks to kill more rhinos. All the while, new poachers are being recruited. Without the law acting as a deterrent, there is no limit to how many poachers there are out there, but there is a limit to how many rangers can be employed based on very restrained budgets. 

Proof of law is in Mozambique, where poachers walk 50 kilometres past rhinos that have crossed over from Kruger, and past the boundary line into South Africa so that they can do the killing where they will not face any serious consequences. Since a 16 year minimum sentence for poaching of a protected species was introduced in Mozambique in 2017, poaching has dramatically decreased.

This story coming next…

Could it be that the BIGGEST SEIZURE EVER of rhino horn is from South Africa’s government stockpile horns? It seems only me and a few others who run intel know about this historic 250kg seizure – but the South African police, for reasons beyond my understanding, are remaining tight lipped about it. 

Coincidentally the shutdown of the RhODIS DNA contract in July 2019 happened around the same time there was a sharp increase in seizures of stockpile rhino horns in Vietnam and China. As of recent weeks, the RhODIS DNA testing facility is finally back up and running, but without any transparency. If the police do give them DNA to test, they have no idea what seizure it is linked to. In other words, the South African government can and has been covering up DNA links to Asia’s trafficking networks for nearly two years.

This story coming up next…

Survivors – rhino orphans under the care of African Wildlife Vets | Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park


The loss of 70% of the rhino population in Kruger is rooted in a nationwide systematic web of state corruption. Whether Kruger with the highest population of rhino, or Zululand’s Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park with the highest density, the system is exactly the same:

  • Persecute the most effective rangers and rhino cops.
  • Allow the traitors to keep working from within the parks.
  • Ensure the courts are captured so that few poachers go to jail.

Shannon Elizabeth Foundation summed it after the SANParks report came out, referring to their latest podcast: “Laws will help offset corruption. You have to give the poachers something to be afraid of. It’s going to make them think twice, and right now we’re not giving them any reason to think twice.”

Whether deliberately, or through gross negligence, the state cannot protect our rhinos. That is fact, and we need to stick to the facts instead of smokescreens and rhetoric. We are down to the very last of the rhinos, and the only solution in the race against extinction is a private-public partnership, such as African Parks. 

Rhino charities must unite, and lobby the government to ensure that our flagship parks are resurrected through a private-public partnership, both Kruger National Park, and Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park – which is a mirror of the problems facing Kruger. We cannot keep handing over donor money to criminals, or incompetent administrative management who keep letting criminals run the show. What we need is 100% accountability.

African Parks pioneered the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model for protected area management, whereby African Parks maintains the full responsibility and execution of all management functions and is accountable to the government, who is the owner and who determines the policy. This is achieved through three approaches: long-term agreements (mandates); putting in place funding solutions (money); and establishing good governance and management, by creating seperate legal entities registered in the host country, with a Board representing key stakeholders (management). 

African Parks has a proven track record. The South African government has two choices: allow our rhinos to tumble into extinction, or enter a formidable public-private partnership and save what is left. Anything else is just wasting time, money, resources and putting the lives of dedicated rangers on the line – just so that poachers can turn the courts into a circus.

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