On the Front Line
By Robbie Stammers
As young boys, the only thing these men dreamt about was being able to call the wide expanse of bush their office on a daily basis; to learn from and share their knowledge and passion with visitors like you and me. Little did they know when they first became Kruger Park rangers that they would end up being trained in military fashion—and spend days and nights on end, fighting a vicious enemy on behalf of the precious rhino.
But this they do indeed, and they are extremely passionate and dedicated to the cause, even though it must sometimes feel like they are farting against thunder, as for every poacher captured, there are a dozen more just itching to take his place.
I was one of the privileged few to be invited to join South African National Parks rangers for two nights and three days camping in the middle of the Kruger. We were met by John Turner, chairperson of SANParks Honorary Rangers, and set off for Mokhololo Bush Camp, our erected campsite in the middle of the bush with no fences. This was something very few people get to experience in the Kruger Park: meals under the stars and completely surrounded by the calls and sounds of the open bush.
Gram for gram, rhino horn has become the most expensive commodity on the planet—outstripping gold, diamonds and platinum. The epicentre of the battle is Kruger, with its relatively high number of rhinos on a continent where most populations have been decimated. The park has a 400-kilometre border with Mozambique, which is where 80% of the rhino poachers enter.
Camping in the middle of the Kruger was certainly a treat that none of us would probably get to experience again, but the gravity of the poaching situation was certainly not lost on us as we eased into our first afternoon and night with a magical game drive and then a dinner around the campfire. Thereafter we dodged scavenging hyenas to our tents and fell asleep to the sound of their cackling and the distant roar of lions.
We had a number of excursions planned for first light the next day, but this all changed when word came over the radio that rangers had encountered a rhino that had been shot. Battle stations were called and we all jumped into the vehicles and put foot to where the last sighting had been made. The helicopter circled above us and the beady-eyed pilot spotted the wounded animal not far from the Mozambican border. Our vehicles screeched off in the advised direction, with adrenaline pumping through me as we got closer and closer to the poor rhino.
Finally, we set eyes on the 800kg male running at a speed one would never believe possible. We could make out the bleeding wound on his back, which the rangers said was at least something positive, as it looked like the bullet had gone clean through him and missed his spine, otherwise there would have been no way he could move like that.
The helicopter circled the rhino and Dr Markus Hofmeyr, SANParks’ head of Veterinary Wildlife Services, successfully darted him from the air and stayed close by in anticipation of the dart’s effect. The tranquiliser works surprisingly fast—and watching a massive rhino stumble, fall and desperately get back up then fall again makes your breath catch in your throat. At last, all two tonnes of white rhino went down with a thud, and Dr Hofmeyr and his team ran in and covered his eyes with a cloth to keep him calm.
We were then invited over to watch proceedings, and I was in absolute awe of this magnificent creature a mere few centimetres from my touch. His skin was warm and the wound on his back was seeping blood and puss, where one could make out both the entry and exit wound.
The wildlife veterinary team went to work quickly: An oxygen tube was inserted into the subdued rhino’s nostril; blood, hair and skin samples were taken for DNA, and a pipe with antiseptic solution was put directly through the wound so that it could be washed out and disinfected. The members are no ordinary veterinarians, and daily procedures such as this are quickly becoming the norm for a team tasked with the care of Kruger’s most threatened species.
While they finished up their work on the rhino, we were led off to the helicopter to get an extremely rare treat of flying within the borders of the Kruger—this area is, for obvious reasons, a definite no-fly zone for any unauthorised aircraft bar SANParks officials.
On the ground, the rhino was being given another injection, this one to reverse the effects of the tranquiliser. We swooped up into the air and looked down to try and find the rhino, but he was no longer on the same spot. The pilot pointed him out, already quite far out in front of us, once again running like the wind. I still could not believe the speed the colossal creature could gain, even just a few minutes after having been out for the count.
The pilot then indicated the park’s border with Mozambique, which seemed far too close for comfort after what had happened to the rhino. I reflected on the enormity of what we had just witnessed as a herd of mighty elephants lumbered below us. This had been a good day. Yes, the rhino had been shot, but thankfully not mortally. He would survive another day—this time the poachers had not succeeded. But this would no doubt be a very short victory in a very long war.
I was indeed grateful that we had not come across a rhino that had been decimated and hacked to bits for his prize horn, for that truly would have left me severely traumatised. I had seen enough footage of brave, burly rangers who had broken down in uncontrollable floods of tears when they had come across the savaged ‘living remains’ of those rhino that had not been as lucky as this one today.
The helicopter returned us to terra firma along with our sobering thoughts, and we headed back to camp for more insights into the other approaches being taken on the front line of this rhino war.
That afternoon, the rangers showed us exactly what each side of this war comes up against; which methods the poachers use—which was fascinating—and the countermeasures with which the rangers are being equipped to fight back.
The rangers, who have grown up in the area, had made up at least a dozen traps of all sorts and sizes in the surrounding bush, and proceeded to show us exactly how each one causes deadly accurate consequences when the prey stands on the trigger. They also demonstrated how they can make fire by just rubbing two sticks together (a feat the one ranger managed to demonstrate, producing fire within less than a minute). In addition, we were shown all the equipment and provisions the rangers carry with them when they are tracking poachers. Usually they are out in the bush for days on end and cannot make a sound or light any fires at night. It truly is a tough, sacrificial job and one cannot help but admire them even more.
Another highlight was meeting section ranger Richard Sowry and his dogs from the newly formed dog unit in the Kruger. Dogs are one of the newer arrows in SANParks’ quiver of anti-poaching measures. The first working dog was introduced into the park in 2012. Today there are a variety of dogs trained for different purposes, and the programme is to be expanded.
Not all poachers cross the border at night, say SANParks officials. Some drive openly through the entrance gates, posing as a family on a visit. This happened recently when poachers entered with a high-calibre rifle, one section taped underneath the vehicle, the other in the engine, and the ammunition in the child’s socks. Incidents like these are part of the reason there are now sniffer dogs at all Kruger entrance gates—trained to detect wildlife, guns and ammunition. Gladys, a lovely spaniel, is trained to sniff out guns and bullets. Her handler, a female SANParks staffer (whose identity Sowry asked not to be revealed for her own safety), put Gladys through her paces. Ammunition had been hidden in one of several plastic tubes spread out on the ground. On command, the dog shot off. And when she found the right tube, she sat down in front of it, looking at her handler.
The park also has Belgian Malinois dogs and foxhounds—trained to track spoor three hours or fresher—to patrol, sniff out contraband, and to attack and bring down a person.
Unite Against Poaching, a non-governmental organisation that works with the SANParks Honorary Rangers and SANParks permanent staff, to date has donated R8 million toward anti-poaching measures, including funding the first specialist tracker hound unit in Kruger. There are three foxhounds and handlers already trained, and five undergoing training. The cost of one trained dog is R60 000.
The dogs have a GPS device fitted to their collar, and the helicopter follows them at a distance. One dog can track for eight hours at a stretch, and is then replaced with another. The longest distance one dog has tracked was 23km. When one of the hounds finds the poacher, it does not attack. “It just goes into the bush and waits,” says Johan de Beer, of the SANParks Canine Unit. So far in this year alone, the dogs have led to the arrest of 16 poachers and confiscation of seven weapons. Watching the dogs and their ranger handlers together gave me hope that with more men and mutts such as these, a bigger dent can be made in the fight against poachers.
We enjoyed another wonderful evening with all the SANPark rangers, and I was deeply touched at how much this war means to them and how determined they are to make a difference. They truly love the rhino and everything that the Kruger and conservation means to our future generations who hope to be able to see the wild animal in his own natural habitat—not in a zoo or, worse, stuffed and displayed in a museum. The wine and whisky flowed freely deep into the night, and the rangers regaled us with story after story around the fire.
The last morning was spent with Major General Johan Jooste, an ex-army general and now the head of anti-poaching activity for SANParks. This was indeed a very clever appointment, as the retired major general clearly has vast experience in military intelligence, border- and area protection as well as contemporary knowledge of modern technology use, which now includes the rangers looking into potentially bringing in drones along the Mozambican borders.
“We were rangers, now we’re at war,” said Major General Jooste candidly, “but we have made the decision that we are here for the living rhino, not the dead.”
In fact, it was Major General Jooste who met up with Warren Buffet’s son, Howard, for dinner a few months ago to explain what the rhino war is all about. The American philanthropist immediately proceeded to donate $24 million (R255 million) to SANParks to fund a high-tech campaign against rhino poaching, which he compared to the United States’ war on drugs on its southern border.
With people like Major General Jooste, the incredibly dedicated rangers, the dog unit handlers, the vets and everyone else rallying behind this incredible fight and cause to save our rhino, we may just be able to turn this around in the long run. I can only hope so. The other option is too sad to contemplate.
Raise a glass to the anti-poaching effort
This unforgettable experience was thanks to the Rhino Tears range of wine. The idea came about when Mount Vernon Wine Estate managing director, John Hooper, met with John Turner, chairperson of the SANParks Honorary Rangers Conservation Services Unit, and Andre Nel, owner of The Hat and Creek restaurants in Hoedspruit and Phalaborwa. After spending a couple of days with the field rangers in the Kruger National Park, they developed the idea for a wine that could raise money for anti-poaching efforts.
Hooper realised he needed to create a good quality product that wine lovers around the world would appreciate. An important point to consider, though, was selling a wine that people would buy often and could enjoy immediately, as this would mean more for anti-poaching than a wine that would have to be stored in a cellar for years before drinking. The result is a good red blend made from Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage grapes, which allows for easy drinking and appeals to all levels of palate. The white is a delightful fruit-driven Chenin Blanc, suitable for enjoying on all occasions.
Rhino Tears wine sells at around R55 per bottle, and R15 from each bottle goes directly to Unite Against Poaching. Wine lovers can be confident that 100% of the funds raised through sales of Rhino Tears are used for anti-poaching projects in SANParks. “Every bottle purchased really makes a difference. The anti-poaching war is expensive, and the men and women involved need all they can get against a ruthless enemy,” says Hooper.
Rhino Tears wine is available for purchase in major retailers around the country, including Pick n Pay, Makro, Tops and Spar, Fruit & Veg City and major independent retailers. It can also be ordered online at www.mountvernon.co.za or www.sanparksvolunteers.org.
Source: The Intrepid Explorer