Focussing on the good work being done to protect our rhinos
“Over there, down below on our left!” I exclaimed. The helicopter banked sharply and dropped steeply down to offer us the best sighting. Although there was plenty of game around, we weren’t just looking for anything – we were out to spot white rhinos from the air. And suddenly, right there, only a stone’s throw below, were three magnificent rhinos running in perfect formation through the bush – it was a moment frozen in time.
I found myself in the Kruger National Park in South Africa on a special, behind-the-scenes trip to get an inside look at what’s happening on the ground in SANParks’ anti-poaching efforts in the region. When I spotted those three rhinos in their natural splendour, I was struck by a sudden strong, overwhelming feeling, that, despite the flood of negativity, there is good news for our rhinos in the Kruger.
I can’t explain why it came to me or what provoked it. But I sense it had something to do with the fact that we were flying in a SANParks Air-wing helicopter that forms part of a dedicated and passionate team who are responsible for aerial anti-poaching patrols and darting operations in Kruger – I was part of a good team, a proudly South African team, a team to be respected and admired.
If you’ve followed the rhino poaching crisis on social media, then you’re probably all too familiar with the negativity that shrouds the topic. That negativity lately seems to have spiralled into a perpetual state of doom and gloom over the issue. Perhaps it’s just my optimistic nature, but I don’t believe that’s good enough. I believe there is always more good than bad. Negativity is exhausting, and the bad wins easily if you let it. Moreover, there seems to be an overwhelming amount of unfair blame toward those involved for not doing ‘enough’.
Personally, I’d rather focus on telling stories of the heroes on the ground, who are doing an unimaginably incredible job at fighting to protect our rhinos. After having met them myself, I can happily confirm that they exist outside of our fleeting keyboard strikes. And the real work is being done.
Now, perhaps you’d like to meet some of them yourself.
To meet the anti-poaching heroes, continue reading below the advert
Cowboys and anti-poachers
Back at camp, a rugged all-terrain vehicle (ATV) came zooming around the corner, kicking up a cloud of dust and screeching to an urgent halt. Out stepped a man dressed in full camouflage; his boot hit the ground with a thud as he rose to greet us. He carried with him a powerfully authentic edge that seemed to suggest that he was confident enough to exude down-to-earthness, but focussed and serious enough to deal with situations – for lack of a better phrase – ‘like a boss’. It was like a John Wayne moment from a Western movie scene, and I knew instantly that the cowboy had just arrived. Boots and all.
Section ranger Neels van Wyk of the Crocodile Bridge section of park is a fantastically rare breed of human, and is first on my list of people I want involved in this fight.
The Crocodile Bridge section is part of Kruger’s IPZ (Intensive Protection Zone) in the southern section of the park where the majority of the park’s rhino population lives. It is also the section with the most focussed and frequent poaching activity in the park. At any one time, between six to eight poaching groups are said to be operating on the ground here.
Neels co-ordinates and is in charge of all anti-poaching efforts in the section, and thus has to play the proverbial anti-poaching god for rhinos on a daily basis with no respite. He carries three cellphones – one for friends and family, one for rangers, and one for ‘that call’ – because, “when that phone rings, then you know”. That alone is rather god-like, in my opinion.
He is responsible for the teams of trackers and field rangers who are spread out in the 100,000 hectare IPZ, patrolling and collecting anti-poaching intelligence. For reference, that’s the size of 100,000 sports fields put together. And it’s filled with bush so thick you can barely spot an elephant five metres from your vehicle, never mind poachers who could be hiding anywhere. At any given time, Neels could be called to zoom off in his off-road ATV buggy to deal with an ‘incident’ anywhere in the IPZ.
But, zooming off into the dust (which he did multiple times at random on our trip), one can only be left reassured – this is the man you want at that scene. I almost found myself feeling sorry for the poachers who would have an unfortunate encounter with Neels and his team – I wouldn’t want to come across a man who takes his job as seriously as Neels does. It sent shivers down my spine.
He also – somewhat reluctantly, but with fervour – has a role to play in putting poachers behind bars, and could be called out to attend court hearings at any time.
“He shot himself in the foot, that guy”, Neels tells us over dinner at camp, after returning from another court appearance. “We all thought he would take the plead, but he threw a curveball. He thought he could get his sentence reduced on his own, now he’s going behind bars for at least 50 years.” With this, Neels confirmed, with a wry smile, that an incident in which he’d detained some poachers (in rather epic, Rambo-like circumstances involving dodging bullets) some five years back had finally come to a close. That proves the dedication involved in sealing the fate of all those who dare to enter Neels’ backyard uninvited. We’re lucky to have people like him involved.
To read more about anti-poaching heroes, continue reading below the advert
A volatile scene
The next morning, at the break of dawn, Neels escorted us to the scene of a rhino laying out cold in the bush, with a hive of human activity buzzing around it. As we soon found out, the rhino had been freshly darted, and a team of SANParks Veterinary Services members had just gone straight to work.
Their task? Collaring and collecting information on this beautiful female rhino. In a sentence it seems like a piece of cake, but what cannot be conveyed in words, or even pictures, is the raw, high-frequency emotion present at the scene. From the moment the rhino had been darted, it was a highly volatile situation. One of those that changed from waiting to ‘go time’ in a flash.
It was no easy task for the team with a massive, lumbering creature who was now under acute stress. It was not a gentle anaesthetic type of operation. For the entire time that the team was working on her, her back leg was kicking furiously – she was running in her sleep, trying to get away. Her lips were quivering, like a frightened child in need of her mother. Her breathing was heavy, she was tangibly stressed. Her vitals had to be continuously monitored – anything could change at any moment. Her heart was beating so fast and her temperature rising so quickly that she had to be cooled with buckets of water.
But, through the tense air of volatility, the team remained super-humanly calm. They operated in a way that I can only liken to a Formula 1 team changing a tyre; everyone involved knew exactly what to do when. Commands were given reassuringly and not a hint of pressure was involved. The rhino was handled tenderly and delicately, like you would a child in need of care.
As she stumbled back to her feet and began to make her way back into the thick bush, I had that same inexplicable, warm feeling that she was safe, and that thanks to the dedicated people fighting the good fight, she’s getting her best chance at a free life.
Not exactly a bush holiday
Also present at the scene was another camouflage, off-road ATV towing a mobile trailer – looking rather like it was ready for a camping holiday. Except, for the team of forensic investigators that haul this setup deep into the bush, it sure is not a holiday. The trailer is filled with enough food, overnight gear, forensic and medical equipment to perform a full crime scene investigation – which could take days.
The team is the proverbial CSI of rhino poaching in Kruger, and they’re a lot more hardcore than what you’d see on any TV screen. Officially known as the Wildlife Crime Prevention Co-ordination Unit (WCPCU) they are a team of ex-police and defence force investigation specialists (both the best and most qualified for their new jobs, and easy to train for wildlife crime scene investigation), responsible for collecting forensic information at the scene of rhino crimes.
But, as senior investigator Frik Rossouw told me, this bush CSI team works undeterred by any logistical challenges, and completely focusses on the task of gathering intelligence to prevent rhino crimes. And, according to Frik, it’s working like a charm.
In 2016, Frik said, a total of 490 arrests were made (283 in park, 207 outside park) in connection with rhino crimes in the Kruger – none of which would’ve been possible without their solid backing evidence. Of these, 80% of the arrests were made at Level 2/3, meaning that higher level criminals involved in courier and supply networks for poachers and their trade were arrested and taken out of the equation. This bush CSI team is starving the poachers of their outlet, one arrest at a time. Like I said, not exactly a bush holiday.
View a gallery of some of the Kruger’s everyday anti-poaching heroes here
To find out more about the anti-poaching heroes, continue reading below the advert
The Bloodhound gang
After another evening regaling bush tales around the campfire, we went for a walk the following morning. Lost in the awe of the bush-walking experience, I jumped as I heard a sudden rustle in the bush and the unmistakable sound of panting. The sound was close, and coming closer. It was marching briskly, and sounded like it was on a mission. I braced myself for my first close-up encounter with a hyena on foot – and I was scared.
So, it was to my surprise when it wasn’t a hyena that appeared through the bush – but a dog, on a leash.
The Kruger National Park works with canine training and handling experts to train a team of anti-poaching dogs, who have become a vital tool in the park’s armoury against poachers. The dogs – bloodhound-doberman mixes – and their handlers are out in the bush every single day, tracking down clues and evidence that could lead to catching poachers.
These dogs are specially bred and conditioned for just that. From the moment they are born, their senses are guided by conditioned stimuli that expose them to every possible piece of information about poaching activity; from the smell of old-bush clothes, to the food they eat and even what their footprints might smell like.
When one considers the amount of sensory information available to the dogs at the scene of a fresh rhino carcass, a mere footprint in the sand might seem unlikely to deliver much in the way of tracking information. But, as Johan de Beer, the man in charge of the tracking dog operation for SANParks attests, it’s because poachers have become so smart and stealthy in the bush, that a footprint is an important place from which to start.
“Poachers know how to avoid leaving any footprints in the sand. They will always stick off the path, that’s why we condition the dogs to the smell of crackled bush”, de Beer says. “They will also sometimes turn the soles of their shoes around, to make us think they’re walking in the opposite direction. And, they’ve even used animal hooves on the soles of their shoes to confuse us. Without the dogs, we’d be lost on this information.”
Starting an entire tracking operation from a mere footprint in the sand, and not working backwards from a fresh carcass (as I had imagined prior), is testament to the confidence that this team has in the super-sensory ability of their dogs. Perhaps one day, man’s best friend will also be called a rhino’s best friend, too.
Read more about Kruger’s anti-poaching dogs in this magazine article.
To find out about the work of the Honorary Rangers, continue reading below the advert
Rangers of honour
At our camp dinner that night, I began chatting to a friendly face who ran off stories about wild encounters in the bush like it was his regular sermon. Enthralled, I became curious as to who this interesting man was. I had taken him to be a section ranger from another section in the park.
So, when I was introduced to John Turner, head of the Honorary Rangers’ Conservation Services Unit (CSU), I was surprised and immediately wanted to find out more about his fascinating life, and where all his wild bush tales came from.
I found out that the SANParks Honorary Rangers are a team of volunteer rangers working in various capacities for SANParks nationwide. Their significance in the fight against rhino poaching is huge, in that they also serve as the principal support network and fundraising arm of SANParks.
John, it turns out, is a fundraising mastermind, and has made it his life’s work for the CSU after a career in the hotel business. He ensures the running of continuous fundraising campaigns to aid SANParks in their anti-poaching efforts.
In 2016, the Honorary Rangers’ CSU raised R7 million for anti-poaching efforts in the Kruger. Chief ranger in the park, Xolani Nicholus Funda, says, “without the Honorary Rangers we wouldn’t be where we are in this fight”. They fund and support the rangers, vets, canine units, Air-wing and all others involved on the ground with everything they need to do the passionate and dedicated work they do in fighting for rhinos.
Without them, the fight to preserve our rhinos cannot be won, and without the Honorary Rangers, and people like John, well, we’re lucky we don’t have to think like that.
Continue reading to find out how you can support them.
Flying back over the vast Kruger wilderness on our way out of the park, I was struck with that same warm feeling that there is good news for our rhinos. I shuddered as I thought of a rhino’s life in the park without the protection of people like Neels and his rangers, without the nursing care of dedicated vets, without professionals on the trail of those who dare to poach them, without the help of brilliant tracking dogs, and without the funding and support of dedicated volunteers.
It’s a horrifying thought. I simply couldn’t imagine it. Could you?
There’s a reason the old adage stays: “Fight the good fight”. It is a fight, and we owe it to those who have dedicated their lives to the good fight for rhinos, to carry the fire with them, and to spread it until the smoke settles on this senseless war.
View a gallery celebrating rhinos for the beautiful, majestic beasts they are here
To find out about Rhino Tears wine, continue reading below the advert
Rhino Tears is a flagship wine brand in the fight against rhino poaching. They are a principal donor to the Honorary Rangers’ Conservation Services Unit. In 2016, they donated over R1.2 million to the CSU, who help to fund all operations mentioned in this article.
Watch this Rhino Tears video to see how they’re involved with our rhinos
Rhino Tears donates R15 per bottle to the Honorary Rangers CSU. Why not contribute to saving our rhinos by having some fun and drinking some delicious wine?
To read more about the author, continue reading below the advert
Meet the author
Hey, I’m Rich. I’m on the editorial team here at Africa Geographic. I was lucky enough to have had a semi-bush upbringing, where I discovered the freedom and sweet, abundant elixir in the air of the African bush. I have also since developed that annoyingly persistent global travel bug and have been lucky enough to travel to all the continents (barring Antarctica… one day I hope to ski there… yup, you heard right). In all my travels, the mother continent has tugged deeply at my roots, and I have since returned to share my love for her astoundingly beautiful and special places with those who are enchanted and drawn to her wild allure.