Book Extract: Rhino War – On The Horns Of A Dilemma, Or Making Progress Generally

March 1, 2023


In 2012, retired South African general Johan Jooste was parachuted into the seemingly unwinnable war against rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park. With poaching spiralling out of control, Jooste was given the mandate to ‘go military’, to convert Kruger’s ranger corps into a paramilitary force capable of taking the fight to the poachers. Aged 60, white, and a veteran with 35 years’ military service, Jooste’s controversial appointment was immediately met with resentment and outright hostility by elements of South African National Parks, the police, and even the military with which he had served. With the media, government, conservationists, human-rights activists and the people of South Africa looking over his shoulder, Jooste had to battle opponents within and without to carry out his strategy for turning the tide on rhino poaching. Rhino War tells how Jooste, facing an unprecedented assault on a national park and a single species, turned a force of demoralised men and women into arguably the finest anti-poaching unit on the African continent.

Rhino War: A General’s Bold Strategy in the Kruger National Park by Johan Jooste and Tony Park is available now. This excerpt published by permission.


At that time, 618 rhinos had been killed in South Africa in 2012, about half of them in the Kruger Park. There were predictions that more would die before the end of the year. Poachers, like everyone else, I learned, need extra money at Christmas time, so there was traditionally a spike in activity in December. I was up next and it was clear that the tone of this press briefing was one of getting tough on rhino poaching.

From my initial interview with SANParks, I had been getting a feeling that many saw my appointment as some silver bullet. The mood was: Right, we have appointed a general, so now the problem will be solved. To my way of thinking, that was not so lekker, and I wanted to address it here and now.

‘I am not a Messiah, but a proven leader and team player,’ I told the assembled media, as I read from my prepared statement. I swept the faces of the Kruger staff in the audience. Some seemed interested, others looked up at me with blank faces. ‘I will do my best to bring acceptable results. This fight against poaching is not about an individual, and success depends on the collective collaboration and commitment from the men and women tasked with the responsibility of conserving our heritage.’

There were lights shining in my face as I spoke and digital camera drives fired in bursts at the rate of automatic weapons. After giving my statement I faced a barrage of questions from the journalists, which I did my best to answer.

‘The battle lines have been drawn and it is up to my team and me to forcefully push back the frontiers of poaching,’ I said in response to one question. A reporter asked whether the fight against poaching did, in fact, amount to a war?

‘It is a fact that South Africa, a sovereign country, is under attack from armed foreign nationals,’ I said. From what I had already learned, the main threat to our rhinos at that time was coming from across South Africa and Kruger’s eastern border with Mozambique. I wanted to send a clear message to the government and people of that country. ‘This should be seen as a declaration of war against South Africa by armed foreign criminals. We are going to take the war to these armed bandits and we aim to win it.’

A murmur rippled through the audience. While I tried to be optimistic and positive in my statement and the rest of my answers, it was those more cavalier remarks, about ‘taking the fight to the enemy’ that, predictably, received the most prominent coverage in the media. After the briefing, several journalists took me aside for  one-on-one interviews. They saved their more thoughtful, probing questions for these private talks, out of earshot of their competitors. ‘What will you do differently?’ one reporter asked.

Those five words unsettled me. The truth was that I had no definitive answer to the question – yet. I still needed to learn more about what had been done, and to formulate my strategy for what I believed should still be done. I skirted the question. I knew this would not be the last time I would come under the scrutiny of the media – although I could not have imagined back then just how intense that overwatch would be. I realised then and there that I would have to manage external communication directly and professionally from now on.

Away from the glare of the cameras, I was taken to lunch with senior leaders from the ranger corps and Kruger’s management.

Louis Olivier, whom I soon learned was a legendary ‘elder’ among the rangers, shook my hand and slapped me on the back. ‘Welcome, we will support you!’ He seemed genuine, and while everyone was polite during the lunch, I did not see anyone rejoicing. I couldn’t blame them. I had been parachuted into this job. David Mabunda’s message to the leadership team and the other players in anti-poaching – most notably the police and the military – was: ‘This is the man I have selected and I request that you support him.’ I appreciated that David had made such a bold decision, but a strong case could also have been made that the decision to appoint an outsider to the position of Chief Ranger should have warranted extensive consultation and collaboration.