There was a morbid beauty in the graceful gliding of the dozens upon dozens of carrion-eating birds swirling above the distended carcass of an elephant in the Punda Maria section of the Kruger National Park (KNP).
It takes energy to stay aloft in the humid skies and the vultures and Maribou storks soon settled in nearby trees as the police forensic team went to work yesterday afternoon. The roughly five-ton carcass was discovered on Tuesday and the hyenas had yet to arrive and destroy the scene.
With no shots reported being fired, it was the grim responsibility of the forensics team to perform an autopsy on the elephant, to discover a possible cause of death.
Found with its tusks intact by Punda Maria rangers on top of a rocky, wooded hill, their initial assessment was that it died of injuries sustained in a fight, KNP spokesperson Ike Phaahla said.
Nonetheless, former South African Police Service Lieutenant-Colonel Maila Malatji, who used to work in the forensics unit and after retiring joined SANParks’ environmental crime investigation division with his wealth of experience, ran a metal detector over the body of the bull elephant. This was to check for a bullet, and his search came up negative.
Once DNA samples were obtained, it was off to the second carcass lying a few kilometres away in a river bed, also still in possession of its tusks. That it may be the other half of the fatal fight was still to be confirmed.
It’s the sixth carcass discovered north of the Olifants River in the Kruger Park this month.
Malatji confirmed four had been poached, and a final conclusion still had to be reached about those investigated yesterday.
The speedy response to crime scenes is one of the aims of Project Ivory, Phaahla said.
“We launched Project Ivory on Monday mainly to give technical and ranger support to this part of the park because we’ve seen an increase in the number of incursions into the park,” Phaahla said.
In line with General Johan Jooste’s philosophy – which he expressed on Monday – of solving poaching before it enters the park, partnerships have been formed with communities bordering the Kruger.
“We want them to be our eyes and ears and look for signs of incursions,” Phaahla said.