AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Kruger National Park in South Africa, the battle to save populations of rhinos sometimes resembles just that - a battle. Rangers there are taking on increasingly dangerous poachers, rangers and their dogs. David Fuchs has this report.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: One...
DAVID FUCHS, BYLINE: Here on the parade ground of the Southern African Wildlife College, a group of future park rangers is being put through their drills.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hut. Hut. Hut. Hut.
FUCHS: Marching in unison, mock rifles slung over their shoulders, boots kicking up clouds of dust, they look like they're preparing for combat. And in many ways they are.
RUBEN DE KOCK: Last year alone, there was a hundred armed contacts in the park, bullets flying up and down.
FUCHS: That's Ruben de Kock. He's the head of ranger training at the college. It's a private organization, but nearly all of the students' fees are paid by the government. In South Africa, that investment is critical. The country is home to 80 percent of the world's rhino population, and poaching has exploded here over the past decade. In 2007, 13 rhinos were killed by poachers. Last year, that number was over a thousand. And recently, for the first time, one of de Kock's own graduates was shot and killed by a poacher, highlighting how dangerous they are now.
DE KOCK: They don't respond like the guys did 20 years ago by dropping their firearm, raising their arms and going, oh, sorry, you know, you've got me. These guys fight.
FUCHS: Years ago, de Kock said that most poachers were local hunters looking for meat to eat or sell. Today they're backed by criminal syndicates in Asia and come equipped with night-vision goggles and massive amounts of ammunition. But some young South Africans still step up to be rangers.
LETHABO MAKHUBA: The most important thing which drives me to this conservation, it was the rhino poaching.
FUCHS: That's Lethabo Makhuba, a ranger in training from Limpopo. She got involved after something she saw online.
MAKHUBA: It was Facebook, the minute when I saw the last old rhino, when he passed on. That's why it makes me like - I have to step in.
FUCHS: That last old rhino was Sudan, the last male northern white rhino who died in Kenya earlier this year. Makhuba fears that the same fate will befall some of South Africa's rhino subspecies.
MAKHUBA: So we will only be left with the picture, but not with the real animal. So even our children, grandchildren, they have to see it as well.
FUCHS: To protect against poachers, rangers have a bevy of sophisticated resources ranging from thermal-imaging cameras to aircraft. But one of the most effective strategies is low-tech.
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JOHAN VAN STRAATEN: When the rhino poaching started, one of the game-changers was to keep dogs, tracking dogs.
FUCHS: That's Johan van Straaten, the canine manager at the college, showing me what he calls high-speed tracking dogs. He gave me a tour of their facilities just around dinnertime.
VAN STRAATEN: Quite eager to eat. And because they're a pack, and they eat together, and they stay together so - because they're working together.
FUCHS: The dogs are let loose as a pack to run down poachers in the bush while rangers follow overhead in helicopters. The parks also use dogs to sniff out stocks of rhino horn, elephant tusks and animals like the pangolin, which van Straaten says poachers might hide.
VAN STRAATEN: So since we use dogs, the guys can't hide from us anymore.
FUCHS: The dogs are kept in secure facilities to make sure the poachers don't target them. It's a combination of the rangers and dogs that park officials say brought down rhino poaching in Kruger Park by 24 percent last year. For NPR News, I'm David Fox in Nelspruit, South Africa.
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