Updated on Wednesday at 11 a.m.
Ruben de Kock has been training South Africa's park rangers for over two decades — but last month was the first time one of his former students was killed on the job.
The July 19 incident, in which 34-year-old Respect Mathebula died in a shootout, marks the first instance in 50 years of a ranger being killed by poachers in Kruger National Park. Yet given the intensity of rhinoceros poaching in the region, the milestone is as surprising as it is tragic.
Home to roughly 80 percent of the world's rhino population, South Africa has seen poaching explode over the past decade. In 2007, 13 rhinos were killed by poachers. Last year, that number was 1,028 — down from a peak of 1,215 three years earlier, according to TRAFFIC, a monitoring network for wildlife trade. African rhinos include the near-threatened white rhino and critically endangered black rhino species.
The escalating aggression of poachers — who are widely reported to be connected to criminal syndicates in Asia, where rhino horn, valued for its purported medicinal qualities, trades on the black market for tens of thousands of dollars per pound — means rangers face greater risks in the field, says de Kock, who oversees ranger training at South Africa's Southern African Wildlife College.
"They don't respond like the guys did 20 years ago by dropping their firearms, raising their arms, and going, 'Oh sorry, you've got me,'" he says. "These guys fight."
To combat rhino poaching, rangers have a bevy of sophisticated resources at their command, ranging from thermal-imaging cameras to aircraft. But one of the most effective is strikingly low-tech: dogs.
Canine units were introduced into South African national parks in 2012. For security reasons, the park service will not disclose how many canine units currently operate in the parks system, but does report that the dogs now assist in 80 percent of arrests — a figure that earns them distinction as "the most significant technology currently in the anti-poaching campaign," according to South African National Parks spokesperson Isaac Phaahla.
Certain breeds are used for different tasks, says the college's K-9 manager, Johan van Straaten. Malinois, Labradors and spaniels comprise the detection team, sniffing out illicit materials — like elephant tusks, rhino horns and pangolins — during vehicle searches and poacher apprehensions. Doberman-bloodhound mixes are the "on-line trackers," part of a specialized team that works with human handlers to track down poachers in the park.
"Since we use dogs, the guys can't hide from us anymore," van Straaten says. No matter the breed, he says the most important qualification is that "the dogs have it in their DNA to track."
Of all the teams, the real game-changer has been the "high-speed" tracking dogs, says de Kock. This is a specialized unit of pack dogs trained to run down poachers in the bush, while rangers follow from above in helicopters. De Kock says the team has been so effective in poacher apprehensions that the college has had to take additional security measures to protect the dogs from potential poacher attacks.
Some reports cite the dogs as contributing to last year's 24 percent drop in rhino poaching in Kruger National Park, typically a poaching hot spot due to its size — more than 7,500 square miles — and roughly 8,000 rhinos, the largest population of any South African national park. Others, however, highlight how the heightened security measures in Kruger have simply coincided with increased poaching in more vulnerable parks in other provinces.
Despite the risks of the work, young South Africans are still stepping up to become rangers. At the wildlife college run by De Kock, 700 candidates applied for 120 seats after a government program supplied funding for ranger training in 2011. Nearly all the students' fees are paid by the government — and half the country's 450 rangers are alumni.
And while ranger positions do provide jobs, much of the motivation among students stems from a commitment to conservation and the desire to protect rhinos.
Lethabo Makhuba, 27, grew up in the Limpopo province just west of Kruger National Park. Seeing the northern white rhinos reach the brink of extinction earlier this year was what finally pushed her to enlist, she tells NPR. She fears a similar fate is in store for South Africa's rhinos if counter-poaching efforts fall short.
"We will only be left with the picture, not the real animal," she said. "Our children, grandchildren — they have to see it as well."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Kruger National Park in South Africa, the battle to save populations of rhinos sometimes resembles just that - a battle. Rangers there are taking on increasingly dangerous poachers, rangers and their dogs. David Fuchs has this report.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: One...
DAVID FUCHS, BYLINE: Here on the parade ground of the Southern African Wildlife College, a group of future park rangers is being put through their drills.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hut. Hut. Hut. Hut.
FUCHS: Marching in unison, mock rifles slung over their shoulders, boots kicking up clouds of dust, they look like they're preparing for combat. And in many ways they are.
RUBEN DE KOCK: Last year alone, there was a hundred armed contacts in the park, bullets flying up and down.
FUCHS: That's Ruben de Kock. He's the head of ranger training at the college. It's a private organization, but nearly all of the students' fees are paid by the government. In South Africa, that investment is critical. The country is home to 80 percent of the world's rhino population, and poaching has exploded here over the past decade. In 2007, 13 rhinos were killed by poachers. Last year, that number was over a thousand. And recently, for the first time, one of de Kock's own graduates was shot and killed by a poacher, highlighting how dangerous they are now.
DE KOCK: They don't respond like the guys did 20 years ago by dropping their firearm, raising their arms and going, oh, sorry, you know, you've got me. These guys fight.
FUCHS: Years ago, de Kock said that most poachers were local hunters looking for meat to eat or sell. Today they're backed by criminal syndicates in Asia and come equipped with night-vision goggles and massive amounts of ammunition. But some young South Africans still step up to be rangers.
LETHABO MAKHUBA: The most important thing which drives me to this conservation, it was the rhino poaching.
FUCHS: That's Lethabo Makhuba, a ranger in training from Limpopo. She got involved after something she saw online.
MAKHUBA: It was Facebook, the minute when I saw the last old rhino, when he passed on. That's why it makes me like - I have to step in.
FUCHS: That last old rhino was Sudan, the last male northern white rhino who died in Kenya earlier this year. Makhuba fears that the same fate will befall some of South Africa's rhino subspecies.
MAKHUBA: So we will only be left with the picture, but not with the real animal. So even our children, grandchildren, they have to see it as well.
FUCHS: To protect against poachers, rangers have a bevy of sophisticated resources ranging from thermal-imaging cameras to aircraft. But one of the most effective strategies is low-tech.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)
JOHAN VAN STRAATEN: When the rhino poaching started, one of the game-changers was to keep dogs, tracking dogs.
FUCHS: That's Johan van Straaten, the canine manager at the college, showing me what he calls high-speed tracking dogs. He gave me a tour of their facilities just around dinnertime.
VAN STRAATEN: Quite eager to eat. And because they're a pack, and they eat together, and they stay together so - because they're working together.
FUCHS: The dogs are let loose as a pack to run down poachers in the bush while rangers follow overhead in helicopters. The parks also use dogs to sniff out stocks of rhino horn, elephant tusks and animals like the pangolin, which van Straaten says poachers might hide.
VAN STRAATEN: So since we use dogs, the guys can't hide from us anymore.
FUCHS: The dogs are kept in secure facilities to make sure the poachers don't target them. It's a combination of the rangers and dogs that park officials say brought down rhino poaching in Kruger Park by 24 percent last year. For NPR News, I'm David Fox in Nelspruit, South Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.