Rhino in Kruger
Image by Pete Ball from Pixabay

SANParks has issued a statement clarifying a report about the dehorning of a dead rhino, following disparaging and “disturbing” comments in the press and on social media; and says it is considering its legal options.

News24 posted an article yesterday (21 May), titled “WATCH | Tourists’ bloody find sparks questions whether insiders killed rhino in Kruger National Park”. In it, an American tourist named only as Lilly told of a “gruesome” scene – when two men emerged from the bush with bloodied rhino horn – which she and 20 tourists witnessed on a night drive in the Kruger National Park, on 11 May 2021. Lilly felt the scene was suspicious, saying it was “very odd that the man was wearing regular clothing and it was bizarre that the rhino horn was so bloody. It was also odd that the truck was hidden off the road and was not a SANParks vehicle”. She added that “if it was a legal thing, why would they be using an axe, not a chainsaw; and why would they be dehorning a rhino in the dark?”

In a statement yesterday evening, SANParks explained the event in detail saying the off-duty worker didn’t have time to get his uniform, that the vehicle was the Ranger’s official work vehicle and that it was not hidden but that they’d driven into the bush to search for the rhino carcass.

Here’s the full statement from the South African National Parks (SANParks) Kruger National Park:

“Section ranger Wilson Siwela (Satara Section Ranger) received a report from Don English Regional Ranger Marula that he had received a report that there was a rhino carcass at a distance of approximately 20km from Satara which still had it horns. The Regional Ranger reported the carcass location to Section Ranger Wilson Siwela and asked him to investigate.

Removal of horns of a dead animal is standard practice

“Ranger Siwela immediately left to investigate and remove the horns. SANParks operates in a high crime environment in which there are daily incursions by poachers. The removal of horns of a dead animal is standard practice. On the death of a rhino, Rangers move to remove the horns as soon as possible.

Worker was off-duty without uniform

“The Ranger required someone to assist and approached a General Worker due to the nature of the incident (the rhino carcass still had horns intact) whom he took straight to the carcass. The General Worker who was off-duty, asked if he should return to his residence in the camp to put on his uniform, but Ranger Siwela requested that they leave immediately as it was a rhino and he did not know the cause of death (natural or poached).

The vehicle is the ranger’s official work vehicle

“He put on his hazard lights and went to the area, overtaking a night drive vehicle en route. It was dark when he arrived at the scene so he drove his vehicle (which is his official work vehicle) into the bush to see if he could find the carcass. On arriving at the scene, they saw a hyena and alighted from the vehicle with a torch to look for the carcass. They found the carcass and started to remove the horns. At this point, the night drive vehicle arrived.

“Once the horns were removed, the closest and safest way to get out of the bush where the carcass lay was straight out to the night drive vehicle (which was carrying passenger ‘Lilly’ and 20 other tourists). Ranger Siwela asked the guide if the General Worker could stand by the guide truck while he went back into the bush to get his vehicle. The night drive guests shone the spot lights for him while he walked back to his car.

“Ranger Wilson retrieved his vehicle then fetched Mr Mnisi from the guide truck and thanked all for the assistance.

“Later that night at approximately 21h00 – 22h00, Ranger Siwela was informed by a colleague that one of the guests wished to meet with him and he intended to do so the next day.

“The next morning however, the Section Ranger immediately took the horns to Skukuza and booked them in with the relevant section and permit numbers. This is standard SANParks practice to have the horns stored as soon as possible. The Ranger then received a call from SANDF members who requested him to return to the scene of the rhino carcass.

“The SANDF indicated that a member of the public had shown them pictures and video of what transpired the previous evening. The Ranger requested from the SANDF that they should not return to the scene as he had not yet been able to undertake a full inspection and therefore did not wish to have a possible crime scene contaminated.

Rhino died of natural causes, after a fight

“Whilst it was initially thought that the Rhino may have been shot, it has subsequently been established by the post mortem team that the Rhino died of natural causes (fighting). There was no other evidence that the Rhino had been shot at the scene.

“The Section Ranger only unfortunately had an opportunity to follow up with the Camp Manager on the Thursday regarding the tourist’s query on the 13th, but the guests had already left Satara.

Despite situation being fully explained, complainant continued to ‘tarnish the name’ of ranger and SANParks

“The complainant had however been contacted telephonically by the Regional Ranger on the morning of the 12th where the situation was fully explained. He received an email from the communications Department reiterating what had transpired, however he continued with his campaign to tarnish the name of the Section Ranger and of SANParks.

Legal options considered

“He has subsequently been informed that the organisation is considering its legal options regarding his posts and the article which was carried, written by Tred Magill (on News24). He will be notified of pending action in due course.

The fact that this incident took place in front of tourists is most unfortunate and exposes what our Rangers have to confront on an almost daily basis.

The ME of KNP Gareth Coleman stated: “The death of any Rhino in the Park is a major loss and hurts all of us. Our Rangers are working under very difficult conditions every single day and are under continual attack and on alert. The fact that this incident took place in front of tourists is most unfortunate and exposes what our Rangers have to confront on an almost daily basis.

“We respect and encourage the public to raise any issue with which they have a concern. In this case, we are certain that this situation was handled correctly and was all in a hard day’s work of our Rangers.

“It is sad that despite the situation having been clearly explained subsequent to the event, that the complainant chose to escalate the items to the press and it has been reported in such a sensationalist manner. We would encourage the complainant to open a case with the South African Police Services should they believe that SANParks, or any of its employees have committed any wrong doing,” said Coleman.

The News24 article also alleges that the rhino’s genitals and anus had been cut out.

Princess Charlene of Monaco is the latest celebrity to attempt to raise global awareness about the plight of rhinos due to poaching. Rhinoceros horn is in demand in certain Asian countries where they incorrectly think it has medicinal value. The former South African Olympic swimmer accompanied a team to the bush for a dehorning operation, aimed at protecting rhino by removing their horns.