Kobus de Wet, National Head of Environmental Crime Investigation in South African National Parks, has had a career in law enforcement that has seen major changes in his country and in wildlife protection.
He joined the police in 1978 and was still serving in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected as the country’s first black president in the first all-race elections. The African National Congress, which had been banned for 30 years, then came to power.
De Wet said that without Mandela’s philosophy of peaceful reconciliation, this could have been a bloody transition, but it was peaceful.
“It is my opinion that Mandela was a God-given president. He was the father of the new South Africa,” De Wet said. “He brought peace and harmony.”
During this change in government De Wet said his job as a police officer didn’t change. “I was in the police. You serve the government. It doesn’t matter which one,” he said.
What many Americans know about South Africa probably comes from the film “Invictus,” directed by Clint Eastwood, that tells the story of a rugby tournament in 1995 in South Africa and the role Mandela, who was newly elected, played in getting black South Africans to join white South Africans to support the country’s team. The underdog South African team, the Springboks, won in overtime.
“Hollywood basically got it right”, de Wet said, although he didn’t get to watch the game. At the time he was in Mozambique overseeing the destruction of weapons that had been used in crimes in South Africa.
De Wet held several jobs in his 22 years with the police, working in the detective branch, stock theft unit, crime intelligence, firearm unit and organized crime unit.
In 2000 he left the police and joined an anti-poaching unit in Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa. This is the largest of the country’s 22 parks, at over 7,500 square miles.
During his first years there the poaching they dealt with was mostly setting snares for smaller animals for meat, but that changed abruptly in 2009 when poachers began targeting rhinos for commercial sales of their horns.
Poachers can enter the park through a border with Mozambique. The poaching peaked in 2014 with 827 rhinos killed.
Last year and so far this year the number of rhinos killed has declined somewhat in Kruger through targeted enforcement actions.
Unfortunately, poachers are mobile and if enforcement is increased in one area they will move their activities to another.
A positive development for rhinos is that some people are allowing them to live on private land, at considerable expense. Some of the private landowners are experimenting with cutting off the rhinos’ horns to take away the incentive to poachers for killing them. De Wit said that would not be practical for large parks like Kruger where there are many rhinos.
Another issue in protecting wildlife is the “criminalization” of villages near parks, where poachers are seen as local heroes because they bring money to the community.
There is a saying “We will get rich without working, but we will die without illness,” he said. “Getting rich without working” refers to the money to be made from poaching, and “dying without illness” refers to the risk of sudden death that comes with poaching, including being killed by animals.
The solution lies partly in educating locals on the value of parks and wildlife, but also tangible benefits from living near a park, like jobs, he said. Kruger has 2,500 employees.
In 2013 he was promoted to the head of Environmental Crime Investigation for South African National Parks. Despite the challenges, he sees the future of African wildlife as “brilliant”.