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Death on the savannah

Logo http://multimedia.dw.com/poaching-in-africa

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Rhinos are among the last of Africa's megafauna. One of the continent's "Big Five" mammal species, they can weigh more than three tons. At the start of the 20th century, rhinos numbered around 500,000 worldwide. Today there are barely 30,000 left.

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The rhino has just one enemy: humans. They covet the animal's horn. And that's deadly for the rhino.

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Rhino shootings have
risen dramatically since
2007. Most of them occur
in Kruger National Park,
South Africa. In 2015,
1175 animals were shot there.

(WWF)

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South Africa is home to around 20,000 rhinos. That's around two-thirds of the global population. The species has survived into the 21st century in the country thanks to massive conservation efforts. But perhaps those efforts will prove futile. Poaching continues.

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Kruger National Park is around half the size of Switzerland and the African rhino's last refuge. The threat comes from outside. Humans live beside the park. Many are poor and poaching promises quick cash.

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The battle to save the last of Africa's rhinos is becoming ever more violent. Rangers frequently come up against armed gangs of poachers who are prone to open fire immediately. To protect themselves, the rangers try not to show their faces.

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More forest than open savannah, much of Kruger Park is difficult to guard. Poachers can hide easily, making it more perilous for rangers. They usually patrol in pairs so they can protect each other. Only in the face of immediate threats, are reinforcements called in. Rangers keep a particular eye on the park's outer borders. Tracker dogs, helicopters and planes support their work.

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Many rangers live in small cities and towns near the park. But poachers and their middlemen often reside in the same areas, placing the rangers and their families at further risk. 

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Ranger, anti-poaching unit, Kruger National Park

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The radio room at the unit's headquarters is mission central in the hunt for poachers. If search teams find anything suspicious, reinforcements are dispatched from here. If a battle breaks out, helicopters are on standby to race to the scene.

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Hundreds of seized rhino horns and elephant tusks are housed at a secret and heavily guarded location. The haul is worth millions but at the same time, a reminder of senseless slaughter.

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The work of a ranger has become increasingly risky.

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In the past decade, over 1000 rangers have died in the line of duty around the world. More than 100 of them were killed in 2015, mainly at the hands of poachers.

(International Ranger Federation)

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Poachers kill rhinos for their horns alone. The rest of the prey is left in the wild.

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A kilo of rhino horn fetches up to $60,000 (53,000 euros) on the black market in Asia. A large horn weighs between 1.5 and 3 kilos. The end dealer will easily make more than $100,000 for such a specimen. The horn is a status symbol in Asia. It's ground up and can be mixed, for instance, with expensive long drinks. It's also said to have miraculous healing powers.

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Rhino horn is smuggled out of Kruger Park to Asia through Mozambique's capital Maputo. The contraband can be up for sale in Vietnam as little as two days after an animal's death. The Southeast Asian country is one of the main recipients of rhino horn.

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Rhino horn has a reputation as a miracle drug in Asia. It supposedly reduces fever and is believed to help in treating measles, strokes and even cancer. But the horn doesn't consist of some mythical, magical substance. It's made of keratin, the same material found in fingernails.

Keratin has absolutely no medicinal effects.

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When rangers discover a dead rhino, they search for even the tiniest clues relating to the identity of the perpetrators.

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Poachers killed this white rhino just a few days ago. They most likely used an axe to break off the horn, and left the corpse lying in the sun. Here the search for clues is anything but pleasant. The air is heavy with the stench of decay.

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Flies find their way to a carcass in a matter of hours.They use the dead animal as a nursery for their millions of offspring and accompany the work of the forensic team with a constant hum.

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Frick Rossouw, forensic expert

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The search for clues is not for the squeamish. The team has to comb through tons of slowly decaying flesh to find the poacher's bullet.  

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Bella Khoza, investigator, South African National Parks

On the team for nearly two years

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Rhino skin is several centimeters thick. It takes a strong sharp knife and a confident first cut to do the work.

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The often overpowering stench lingers for hours on the team's clothing.

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In the trees around the investigation site, vultures wait patiently for the forensic team to clear out. Then their feast begins.

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The investigators are looking for the spot from which the poachers shot the rhino.

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Somewhere in the grass, rangers find an empty shell casing. The poachers had reloaded to shoot a second rhino. Both animals lie just a few meters from one another.

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Skukuza Magistrates' Court, Kruger National Park. This is the place poachers stand trial. There are hundreds of cases each year. The punishments are draconian: 20 to 30 years in prison. Acquittals are rare.

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Most poachers are young men who hope illegal hunting will make them wealthy. Criminal syndicates lure the men again and again with the promise of easy money. But it's the prison cell that awaits many. Between January and August 2016, the South African authorities arrested 414 people for poaching. Some 177 of those were picked up in Kruger National Park. The South African justice system shows no leniency. Poaching is considered a serious crime.

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Ansie Venter, state prosecutor

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The man sitting in the dock is facing half a lifetime behind bars for taking a shot at a rhino. Middlemen likely paid him around $500 for his work.




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Proceedings take place every Wednesday in Skukuza.

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The men's lives will be put on hold for years or even decades. Many turned to poaching out of desperation, and it's precisely such men the syndicates target. They are at once perpetrators and victims.









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As soon as a poacher is caught or killed, the criminal syndicates cut all ties. Families of imprisoned hunters are left to fend for themselves. But without an income, they face an uncertain future.

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Rhinos are not the only megafauna facing extinction. Africa's elephants are disappearing too. Demand for ivory is to blame. At the beginning of the 20th century, the continent's elephants numbered significantly more than one million. Today, there are around 352,000 left. In ten more years, numbers are expected to fall to 160,000. And after that?

(Great Elephant Census)

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If poaching continues unchecked, all wild rhinos and elephants on the planet will be wiped out by the middle of this century.

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Dedicated to the rangers who commit their lives to protecting our planet's wildlife.

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A documentary by Jürgen Schneider

Camera & sound:
Henner Frankenfeld

Photos:
Henner Frankenfeld,
Boris Geilert, Jürgen Schneider

Video editing:
Benno Frevert

Translation:
Jennifer Collins

Producers:
Global Ideas

Executive producer:
Manuela Kasper-Claridge

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South African National Parks (SANParks)

World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF)

International Ranger Federation (IRF)


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