The unrest in Zimbabwe during the past year has shut down commercial farms and led to a shortage of food in some areas. Hunger has driven some people to look for food wherever they can. That has meant a well-documented increase in poaching on Zimbabwe wildlife reserves. Those in charge of controlling the poaching say the problem does not stop at the Zimbabwean border.
"That is the Limpopo river," says Thys Knoetze, pointing toward the river that forms the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe. During the rainy season, the Limpopo is a crocodile-infested torrent that is difficult and dangerous to cross. But this is the end of a long, dry winter. The river is barely a trickle. "The Limpopo is not always flowing through the year. A trickle at this stage," he says. "I mean, you can see the size of the river. Once it flows then nobody crosses. But if it is down like this, then as you say, you know, it poses no problem. The people just cross it. No problem at all."
This part of the river is in the Dubamanzi Conservancy, an unusual nature reserve stretching for more than 300 kilometers along the Zimbabwe-South Africa border. It is a partnership between the South African military and a group of private landowners. Roughly half of the conservancy's 9,000 hectares is owned by the military. The rest is made up of privately owned game reserves, used either for conservation and tourism or for controlled big-game hunting.
Driving onto an abandoned military base adjacent to the Zimbabwean border, visitors see a family of warthogs scampering through the bush. There are three male kudu - large antelope bearing lovely, twisted horns. Not too far away are more antelope, this time a herd of female impala.
Thys Knoetze is a staff sergeant in the South African National Defense Force. He was born and raised in the nearby border town of Messina. His job now is to protect the animals on the military parts of the conservancy from poachers. He says that job has gotten much harder during the past year. "Most of the problems we experience is more towards the border, and that basically points to Zimbabweans coming through," he says.
Sgt. Knoetze cannot comment on the number of Zimbabweans caught each day illegally crossing the border. Official government figures say it has doubled in the past year to about 20 per day. But several law-enforcement sources tell VOA as many as 300 illegal immigrants cross each day - and those are just the ones they catch.
All Sgt. Knoetze can say is the amount of poaching along the border has increased dramatically since this time last year. Local residents who own private game reserves agree. They have lost at least four zebra and six kudu this month, plus countless smaller game such as impala, warthogs, or guinea fowl.
On the abandoned military base, the sergeant walks along a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. He points to a place where the fencing has been cut and pulled up away from the ground. It leaves a hole big enough for a small antelope or a warthog to pass through. A loop of rusty wire is attached to the fence in front of the hole. It is rigged to tighten around the neck of any animal that crawls through. "This is a snare being set here. Anything - warthog, duiker [antelope] or anything will crawl underneath here," he says. "Once it crawls underneath here and gets caught by this, it means that is the end of it. Sometimes it breaks the snare and the snare remains around the neck... and then slowly but surely this animal will die somewhere in the [field], if it is not been taken by leopard, jackal or whatever."
Less than 50 meters away, on the same stretch of fence, Sgt. Knoetze finds another hole, and five more snares. "There is another snare. There is one. There is one. OK, that is not set. This is set. There is one. Here is one. There is one. There is one. There is another one," he counted. "One two three, four, five. And this is again, this is set for guinea fowl. This is a small snare, it is thin wire, and you see the loop is small, so obviously it has been set for guinea fowl."
On another patch of military land, heavy fortifications stand as a reminder of the apartheid government's hostile relations with South Africa's neighbor to the north. Three layers of barbed-wire fence run parallel to the river bank. In the old days, the fence was electrified, but now the electricity is turned off. That has allowed poachers to use the government's own fortifications to snare South African game. "About three weeks ago, the people on the northern side stole about three kilometers of this electric fence because it is not on," he said. "It is just there for 'in case.' So they stole three kilometers of it. And then they used it to set snares with it."
The sergeant acknowledges that not all of the area's poaching problems are caused by Zimbabweans crossing the border in search of food. There are plenty of South African poachers, too. But there is solid evidence that the crisis in Zimbabwe is now threatening the wild animal populations in South Africa as well.