Two months ago, I returned from an anti-poaching research trip in South Africa which I embarked on with my friend and Advisory Board Member, Assemblymember & Asst. Speaker Pro Tempore, Autumn Burke for Over And Above Africa.
We visited several private game reserves over a short period of time in both the Durban and Johannesburg regions and along the way we had the privilege of being invited to spend a day out on foot patrol with one of the elite anti-poaching units (APU’s) to experience for ourselves what it’s really like for these courageous rangers at ground zero.
Having had an exhilarating encounter from our Landrover with both a bull elephant and young male lion not 12 hours earlier, I was somewhat dubious about coming face to face with any of these animals on foot! And made it known to our head ranger (I mean, it’s his life on the line too if I squeal like a girl and turn and run from the scene!). He seemed unperturbed by my confession and since it was such a privilege to be invited, and we would be with three Zulu tribe members who do this daily, we braved it.
We drove to a remote area of the reserve where the rangers picked up the animal’s tracks. Watching them read the rhino prints was fascinating. Studying every little detail of the animal’s foot impressions gave the rangers a panoply of information. A dust pattern gave away the rhino’s destination, depth & placement of the imprint gave away its speed and haphazardly hoisting their ungainly, somewhat portable, UHF finder — gave away the rhino’s location.
We soon learned that we were on the trail of two black rhino — a male and female. It’s rare to see just one black rhino so this trek was unusually exciting for the rangers — and a definite “unicorn” moment for us to see two together. If there was a downside, it would be that our presence could make the male rhino even more aggressive than his breed is famously known to be, since he’d be defending his mate. Undeterred, we continued on.
It’s freezing cold first thing in the morning, and by midday it’s sweltering. The terrain is uneven, and tricky to navigate. The rangers endure so much for so little to keep the endangered species on their land from being poached into extinction. I marveled at their resilience as I tried to keep my own breathing under control, as we ascended yet another steep, rocky embankment, I was determined not to be the one that gave our location away to the rhino. **As an aside, I am purposely not mentioning the rangers by name for their own safety and that of their families. Poachers will stop at nothing to get to the rhino and elephants and think nothing of hurting the rangers and their families. This year alone, over 130 rangers have been killed in the line of duty by poachers. So it’s vital the rangers are not identified by name.
Rounding a corner we stumbled into a recently abandoned, fresh kill. I looked to our head ranger for direction. What had killed it and more importantly, were they nearby watching us and were they coming back to finish it? The thickets were so dense, it was impossible to tell if a pride of lions was in hiding nearby. Maybe a family of jackals had stolen the hind leg from a predator — maybe a leopard? A cheetah? The list of potential predators goes on — and so did my imagination!
The impala’s hind quarters lay blood soaked in the grass, all that was left of the animal. Our head ranger looked troubled. We had been hiking for well over 2 hours at this point, constantly having to stay down-wind of the rhino meant we were always climbing and descending, climbing and descending — watching out for snakes, listening to every branch crackle and wondering what was out there — not to mention bumping into the actual rhino we were tracking, who would make mince-meat of us if they spotted us first.
Our head ranger locked and loaded his rifle and said “We are too far away from our vehicle, we must head back now” — the encouraging part of this statement for me was that the vehicle was downhill and after several hours trekking that mountainside, I felt it was the only direction I was capable of going in. Also, if a rhino charged us, we’d been told to climb the nearest tree. This wasn’t on the menu for me as all the trees around us were thick, thorny bushes, and adrenaline shot or not, I would not be climbing a tree. But I did think I could throw myself down the side of the hill and roll — since outrunning a charging rhino is apparently unwise. They are MUCH faster than they look!
As we all quietly made our way down the side of the mountain, while also trying to stay at the same speed as our rangers I couldn’t help but ponder their lives. They do this trek every day, vulnerable to the elements, natural predators and unnatural ones (poachers) and all in the name of keeping these magnificent animals safe. I was in awe. They work for 21 days in a row and then have a week off, and while on the reserve they live in a converted metal shipping container. It’s very well camouflaged and surrounded by a less than sturdy wire fence which has been erected to ward off any of the larger animals that might stumble into their enclosure. But they are very far off the beaten track, if anything happens, they’re a long way from help.
The views are without doubt, stunning. Cresting a hill is breathtaking. But it is rigorous and sweaty work to do day in and day out. Autumn and I managed to hike 7km with them that day and by day’s end we were drained. These quiet rangers hike upwards of 17km EVERY DAY, sometimes alone, sometimes with another ranger but it’s a solitary life. So on the jeep ride home I asked how we (the outside world) could support them, how could we let them know we really care about their wellbeing and we are in awe of their courage. Such a simple request came back, “We need better boots because we walk all day and our boots are not strong.” They also requested flak jackets because they are exposed to sniper fire from poachers and are unprotected. Water is scarce, so to have a camel pack would be really helpful in keeping them hydrated throughout the day, and lastly, they desperately need night-vision binoculars so they can sense danger long before it becomes an imminent threat to their well-being, or the animals’ well-being.
On the flip side, the poachers are very well funded and equipped for every occasion with assault rifles, night goggles, flak jackets etc — while the rangers are basically sitting ducks out there so today (#GivingTuesday) to show our support successfully held a GoFundMe page to provide these simple items for the rangers.
We learned a great deal about the poaching war from the rangers, landowners, villagers, staff and even from some well-informed tourists while in South Africa. For more information about the poaching war and human/wildlife conflict in Africa please visit our site: OverAndAboveAfrica
Surprisingly, what we did not expect to find were two global technology giants (Dimension Data and Cisco Systems), banding together to design an advanced technology aimed at tackling the poaching epidemic. We were invited to an undisclosed location on a private reserve to experience their pilot program first hand. With first hand knowledge I can report that the program works brilliantly because just that morning they had captured two poachers with their prototype — and played the footage for us of their break in and ultimate capture.
What impressed me the most about Dimension Data and Cisco Systems, is that together they came up with a solution that addressed the poaching issue from a pro-active, rather than re-active stance. Most anti-poaching initiatives tend to catch poachers after the damage has been done. From micro-chipping the rhino horns to placing sensors in the tails and horns connected to each other by radio frequency and reports if the rhino hasn’t moved in a while — both of these usually indicate the rhino has been poached and is either dead, de-horned, or both. “Connected Conservation” which is the name given to this new initiative, identifies the poachers BEFORE they enter the park using a combination of biometrics, facial recognition, cameras, sensors and even weaponry-sniffing dogs as part of their overall strategy. And it’s impressive.
That morning’s successful arrest had happened because the poachers had no idea they’d been identified by the “Connected Conservation” initiative, or that rangers had been deployed so they had no time to throw away the tools and weapons they were about to use to poach a rhino. They were caught “in the act” of poaching which is the only way to make charges stick currently in SA, another coup for “Connected Conservation”.
As Bruce “Doc” Watson, Group Executive, Cisco Alliance, stated to us during our de-briefing, “There is no single answer to poaching — but rather effective tools used in collaboration with each other.” And he’s right. When the good guys come up with a plan that seems to work, the bad guys duplicate it. One ranger told us, “We were very hopeful when drones first appeared — giving us “eyes in the skies” protection over our parks and a huge advantage over the poachers — but now poachers also have drones, sometimes we lose hope.” Utilizing a series of successful initiatives, which includes in its arsenal, armed rangers and even a helicopter ready to deploy — Dimension Data and Cisco have looked at the poaching epidemic in its entirety — stepped back — and addressed solving it from a “big picture” perspective.
Ultimately, it’s the communities that share the land with the animals that have to take this fight on with us. Once they see the animals as more valuable alive than dead, and that being alive is of immediate benefit to their own well-being, the animals’ protection will be ensured. Additionally, there are jobs to be had in the anti-poaching sector and in protecting the animals. Employment, in conjunction with innovative incentives to the surrounding communities, such as offering the locals x-amount of free minutes on their phones, or grain, livestock, seeds etc. for every 4 months an animal is not poached, is highly effective.
Unemployment is rife in the regions where poaching is high and poverty is at an almost unimaginable level. However, everything seems to be happening at a very slow pace leaving me to wonder whether these endangered animals have the luxury of time on their side. I guess it is time that will tell, but with technology as advanced as “Connected Conservation” and globally conscious companies like Dimension Data and Cisco applying their talents and manpower towards the poaching crisis — I did leave the reserve feeling extremely hopeful.
Just one week ago, Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage was attacked by 8 heavily armed poachers who beat the staff, raped a female volunteer and killed two baby rhino orphans for their budding horns. The work the staff at Thula Thula have been doing with orphaned baby rhinos and elephant calves is stellar. Rhinos and elephants need their mothers longer than most animal offspring and rehabilitating them back into the wild is difficult and pain-staking. The added tragedy to this story, is that these two rhino babies were 2 weeks away from being released back into the wild. Now they’re dead.
It’s always a choice to read about crimes like this, shake your head and then move on — but today we are offering you an opportunity to help. Please donate to our fundraiser for Thula Thula — you can click here for more information about the incident and what’s happening now.
As despicable as the rhino orphanage attack was, humans can also be awesome — and if we want to, we can turn this crisis around together. We at Over and Above Africa, will not stop until we have.
We are thankful for @Cisco and @DimensionData for getting into this fight — and we encourage other global corporations to follow their example — because it WILL take a global effort to prevent Africa’s most iconic species from becoming extinct.
Two of the APU rangers in front of their reconditioned shipping container/home!