By Ed Stoddard
MADIKWE GAME RESERVE, South Africa (Reuters) - New infantry-style tactics of concealment and ambush by armed park rangers are credited with turning the tide in the war against poachers of the endangered rhino on one front, in South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve.
The slaughter of rhinos - a creature regarded as an icon of African wildlife - for their horns to meet soaring demand in Asia has raised alarm bells among conservationists.
Since April, Madikwe rangers previously so under-equipped that they lacked even boots have been undergoing military training overseen by a former British special forces soldier.
They have been kitted out with state-of-the-art gear provided by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, a charity that supports anti-poaching initiatives on the African continent.
The numbers suggest this strategy is working. "Since the training started in April, we have not lost a rhino that we know of," said Declan Hofmeyr, chief of operations at Madikwe.
To be precise, the last rhino known to have been poached in the park was on April 6, more than 200 days ago, a remarkable turn of events given the onslaught that had been taking place.
Poachers have gunned down rhinos indiscriminately to meet demand from newly affluent economies in Asia, notably Vietnam and China, where the animal's horn is highly prized as a crucial ingredient in traditional medicines.
At $65,000 a kg (2.2 lb), rhino horn on the streets of major Asian cities is now more valuable than gold or platinum. South Africa, which is home to the vast majority of the world's rhinos, has become the epicenter of the slaughter.
Last year the 680-square-km (260-square-mile) Madikwe lost 18 rhinos to poachers, a dramatic surge from 2011 when two were slain. In the first 3-1/2 months of this year a further nine were killed in the park for their horns.
Then the killing stopped in Madikwe, while the toll has continued to rise in the rest of South Africa. According to government data, as of November 6, 825 rhino had been poached in South Africa in 2013, compared to 668 for all of last year.
If the trend stays at its current pace, more than 1,000 rhinos would be killed in 2014, putting the roughly 22,000 animals in South Africa on the brink of population decline.
FROM RANGERS TO SOLDIERS
The rangers in Madikwe, mostly rural Africans drawn from the region, have bushcraft skills and a rich knowledge of flora and fauna honed from lifetimes spent in the rough countryside.
But their equipment was shoddy and they had no military training, putting them at a distinct disadvantage when confronted by well-armed poachers backed by international organized crime syndicates.
Ex-British army soldier Alan Ives, who has been overseeing their training, told Reuters: "It's easier to make a soldier out of a ranger than it is to take a trained soldier and teach them about the African bush."
The Madikwe rangers now have scopes mounted to their rifles and torches or flashlights for night patrols, among other equipment upgrades.
This does not mean they are cowboys rushing out to shoot to kill - South Africa does not officially have such a policy - but the training and firearms improvements are seen as potential deterrents to poachers.
Some of the rangers previously didn't even have boots and showed up for patrol in jeans. "Not all of us had boots before, I used to bring my own but they were too tight for me, I couldn't even walk 3 kms without taking a rest," said 26-year-old Given Nitmane.
The military has been deployed elsewhere in South Africa to tackle the rhino poaching problem, such as in the Israel-sized Kruger National Park, where former special-forces soldiers have also joined the ranks of park rangers.
The success of such tactics in Madikwe compared to Kruger - which has lost 500 rhinos so far this year, and counting - may come down to size and geography.
At almost 20,000 square km, Kruger is nearly 40 times the size of Madikwe, and even putting 40 times the number of boots on the ground there may not help that much because its wilderness areas are so remote and far off the beaten track.
Kruger also has a 350-km (210-mile) long border with Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries where rural villages are often densely populated, providing plenty of recruits for the lucrative business of rhino poaching.
Madikwe by contrast shares a border with sparsely populated and relatively affluent Botswana.
Still the Madikwe success could be rolled out elsewhere in the country if donor or state funds are made available.
Small local populations also mean word spreads fast. "We are also doing a lot more live ammunition training now. People around the reserve can hear this and it sends a very clear message about our abilities and intentions," Hofmeyr said.
(Editing by Michael Roddy and Mark Heinrich)