The number of rhinos at Sanbona is not revealed; the rangers describe their locations in code - precautions in these places against poachers. A careful watch is also kept on the elephants as well as a group of exotic residents, white lions, which this reserve was one of the first to introduce back into the wild.
I am on holiday after meeting a friend from Kabul while covering the funeral ceremonies for Nelson Mandela in December; accepting with alacrity his invitation to spend a bit of time here along with a few others in a group with the common experience of working in Afghanistan.
While my colleagues on The Independent have been carrying out an extensive campaign against ivory poaching, I came to South Africa with limited knowledge but with curiosity and an interest in wildlife. I was not fully aware of the scale of the depredation taking place or the startling rise in the scale of killings.
What is clear is the value placed by those in the frontline of conservation on awareness of what’s going among people abroad, the damage being done and the daunting challenges faced by those trying to battle an illicit industry worth $19bn a year, serviced increasingly by organised crime.
“Getting the message across to an international audience is obviously pretty much a key. It is, of course, the demand in China and other parts of Asia which is making these vast amounts of money possible, bringing in the criminal syndicates” Paul Vorster, the general manager at Sanbona, stressed. “The poachers who are genuinely local here make comparatively little money, the millions are further up the chain, that is why the action needs to be international.”
There is a view among some that an impoverished population simply does not have the luxury of being concerned about wildlife in their daily struggle for a livelihood. International aid, it is held, should primarily focus on the plight of humans, not animals. I remember being given a version of this by a highly-experienced worker with an NGO as he complained about indifference shown to the strife going on in the Central African Republic.
But it is, actually, Western conceit to hold that people in poor states do not care about animals. The story of Marjan the lion comes to mind. We, the foreign media, found this particular king of beasts in a sorry state in Kabul zoo in 2001, blinded in one eye, teeth destroyed, by a grenade thrown by a Taliban fighter to avenge his brother who had gone into the cage a few days previously in a show of bravado and had been fatally mauled.
The publicity raised around $600,000 from abroad. This was at the same time that promised international aid was barely trickling through. I remember Colin Powell, on a platform alongside Hamid Karzai at a press conference in Kabul being asked how he could justify the delay in helping the population in dire need while Marjan was getting all that cash. The then US Secretary of State was perplexed. An official in his party, behind us, was heard muttering to a colleague “Marjan? Is he some kind of warlord?”
But the Afghans, as it happened, rated their lion very highly indeed. Sheraq Omar, the keeper who had saved the animals he could at the zoo, feeding them out of his own pocket, was recompensed. Marjan was given a public funeral at his death and part of the money raised in his name was spent on repairing the zoo. The grenade-thrower was driven from his home by the local community and beaten up so badly that he died from his injuries.
There are no such cause celebres among the animal victims of poaching here - just grim statistics and glimpses of what may be lost. We saw a family of elephants coming out of stream together, a wondrous sight; it is difficult to comprehend that their population in Africa had fallen by 76 per cent in 12 years due to the hunt for ivory. The numbers of the rhinos killed have risen from 333 in 2010 to 1,014 last year; 86 have been killed in the last two months alone.
And, as the price of horns had risen in the Far East, the attacks had increased in viciousness. Mr Vorster said: “In the past the pattern across the country had been one of gangs often using darts to knock out the rhinos and take off the horn with a panga or even a chain saw. They were specialists with medical knowledge using the right amount of drugs which ensured the rhinos would not be out for too long. But that changed to where they did not want to leave anything of the horn behind, gouging them out, leaving the rhinos very badly injured. We have to think very hard whether to keep them alive.”
Sanbona has managed to keep the poachers at bay from its 54,000 hectares with some success using innovative security measures and also partly because the reserve is not adjacent to immediate human habitation intruders can easily disappear into. But two of its magnificent white lions have gone, found lying near each other, tests unable to ascertain the cause of death.
But Kruger, South Africa’s national park, is now a battle zone at times with units of the army deployed along with helicopters, spotter planes and drones. More poachers are being arrested than ever before and around 25 shot dead in the last eight years, but still they keep coming, the park has lost far more rhinos than any other in Africa.
Private reserves like Sanbona do not get government help and funding remains a major problem. “We are asking rangers to risk their lives and we have a very good and dedicated team we can trust. But the criminal syndicates can offer a hell of a lot of money to officials, and so we have to be very careful about corruption, you don’t know who to trust” said Mr Vorster.
Some private security companies are now offering anti-poaching services. Nils, a former South African soldier I met working as a contractor in Baghdad and later in Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan is one embarking on this. But there are others who have gone over to the other side: “Guys who have come back from Iraq, from Afghanistan with skills to offer to the gangs, and once they get their hooks into you, they don’t let go,” says Nils.
“I don’t think many members of the public really know what’s going on and those who are interested often don’t what they can do about it. We just get on with doing our job”: with that, he went off on his duties after checking his gun.
As the impressive sum raised by The Independent’s appeal and, going back, the case of Marjan, demonstrates that public support is there. The question remains, however, whether the international community has the will to confront the commercial interests which instigate the slaughter.