Poaching in the uMkhuze section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park situated on the east coast of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, has seen park protectors wage an unceasing battle against the slaughter wild game. The fight against poachers pre-dates the formation of South Africa’s UNESCO World Heritage Conservation Site which protects 332000 hectares of diverse eco-systems. It predates the 1956 proclamation of the original Mkuze Game Reserve and it predates the 121 year old protected area of the Pongola-Mkhuze area, according to Reg Gush, in his book "Mkhuze - The Formative Years,”

Poaching the meat locker

The short-lived Zululand protected area of 1895 was swept aside in the Nagana campaign that saw mass slaughter of wild Animals to try and eliminate the tsetse fly threat to domestic stock.

Nevertheless, the modern day uMkhuze, renamed from the original Mkuze Reserve is a stunning example of the rich biodiversity of the area comprised of the Lebombo Mountains, open savannah, ancient sand forest, riverine and fig forest, the sprawling Nsumu pan and swamplands which were occupied since the earliest times by local tribes people. Proclamations by the Natal governors in Africa could not change the fact that for centuries these people had viewed the Mkuze as a giant larder.

Apart from ‘illegal’ tribes squatting and hunting in the early days of the reserve, white farmers who settled the area took out their guns and took to slaughter in what was viewed as a prime hunting area. Early Rangers and a handful of scouts were engaged in fighting the guns, the snares, hunting dogs and pit traps from the very beginning.

In a long and convoluted history of additions and subtractions to the protected area, reports of poaching activities in the 1920’s were made by the small force of 4 game guards.

The sinister rhino war

The insatiable demand for fresh meat resulted in the most horrific injuries and deaths in a multitude of wire snaring incidents through the 56 odd years the modern day uMkhuze has been existence, despite the ever improving anti-poaching strategies of the Natal Parks Board.

However, the poaching problem turned sinister in the early 1990’s, when the Asian demand for Rhino horn turned hunting in the area into a lucrative business. The Reserve was a haven for black rhino, as reported in 1912 by F. Vaughan Kirby, one of the first game conservators. He wrote in his report to the Zululand authorities that he saw two black rhinos and he estimated more, as the thick bush was “everywhere intersected with their paths, and their dunging places being constantly seen.”

Armed incursions in the park increased as illicit firearms poured into the country from neighbouring states and the realisation that “rhino horn is a valuable commodity.” This led to armed incursions into the reserve which is ongoing to the present day.

Community education, involvement in the reserve activities and spin-off from tourist activities is helping to some extent. Today’s guardian, Ezemvelo, which evolved out the Natal Parks Board is continually trying to engage the communities surrounding the area. Nevertheless, the poaching war still rages.

From cities, from outside the country, from diverse places, the relentless slaughter of the rhino and other species continues. At dawn, over a cup of coffee in the beautiful sand forest at Mantuma camp, visitors are reminded of the daily battle for one Africa’s last iconic species as the anti-poaching helicopter sets off to fight another day.