The soldiers sleep in tents, hidden from roaming lions by a blind and protected by high-powered rifles that also ward off the even more dangerous threat of poachers.
In April, South African soldiers were deployed in the Kruger National Park to safeguard the border with Mozambique, where heavily armed and highly organized poachers have driven the slaughter of rhinos to record levels to feed an Asian black market for traditional medicine.
“It’s not just a poacher coming in and he’s hunting for meat, or he comes in with his snares or he comes in with his darts to hunt with a hunting rifle,” said Ken Maggs, a top environmental crimes investigator in the park.
“He’s coming prepared to fight. Hence the tactics that we deploy on the ground are military, paramilitary,” he said.
The poachers slip across the Mozambican border with night--vision goggles, AK-47s, hunting rifles and, in one case, a grenade. Moving in the dark, they scrawl warnings to rangers in the sand.
The army patrols are the first line of defense. Working with a park ranger, they walk through the bush in the early hours of morning, alert to the threat of both predators and poachers.
One evening, a group of lions lounged just 100m from their camp. However, the poachers pose a deadlier threat and have not hesitated to open fire on the patrols.
Fifteen poachers have been killed in shoot-outs so far this year in the park, nine wounded and 64 arrested.
The deterrent seems to be working.
March was the deadliest month for rhinos in the park’s recorded history, with 40 animals killed for their horns, the military said. Since the army deployment, the number has steadily dropped, to 30 in April, 15 in May and just two in June.
It is the first, and still cautious, sign of improvement since 2007, when just 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa, compared with 333 last year.
However, success in the park will solve only one part of the problem, with surging demand in Asia, particularly China and Vietnam, to use rhino horns in traditional medicines to treat everything from nosebleeds to fevers.
“The recent poaching crisis has been attributed to an increase in demand in Vietnam, where a new purported use of rhino horn has appeared as a treatment for cancer,” WWF spokesman Alona Rivord said.
Rhino horns are made of keratin, like human fingernails, and have no scientific medicinal value, but that has done little to curb the black market demand. China has outlawed the use of rhinos in medicine, but enforcement is lax, conservation activists say.
High prices in Asia have led to a more complicated problem: manipulation of South Africa’s legal trophy hunts to export rhino horns that end up on the black market.
Black rhinos are critically endangered, meaning they are at risk of extinction with only 4,838 left in the world, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
White rhinos are more numerous at 17,480. They are legally hunted in South Africa, with a permit that costs just 50 rand (US$7.50), said Rynette Coetzee, project executive in the law and policy program of the Endangered Wildlife Trust.
“There’s hunting taking place, and it’s legal because permits are being issued,” she said.
Each hunter is allowed to kill only one rhino each year, but police earlier this month arrested Thai national Chumlong Lemtongthai, accusing him of working with a syndicate to smuggle 40 horns obtained with hunting permits.