Key members of the CellC Sharks rugby team, representing the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa have just completed an intense five day, hands-on, conservation programme at – and beyond – Phinda Private Game Reserve. Their mission was to find out what it really takes to keep rhino populations safe, and then rally support in the race to save the iconic species.
While on assignment shadowing The Sharks this past week, I have witnessed a band of brothers tested both physically and emotionally as they were put through the paces of rhino anti-poaching. Ten years from now I might forget the moment we had a giggle when Sharks scrumhalf Cobus Reinach anxiously helped cover the eyes of a disorientated rhino that had just been darted, and I might even forget the roars of laughter that filled the night sky when prop Coenie Oosthuizen jumped out of the bushes and gave Sibusiso Sithole and Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira a very big fright.
But I will never forget the moment the boys came face to face with the horrors of rhino poaching.
As the athletes approached the scene of the crime and gathered around the blood and bones of what was once a magnificent black rhino bull, a silence suddenly gripped them; fists clenched, jaws tightened, and eyes strained at the visceral sight of the horn – the source of all suffering – nothing but hocus pocus medicine and a status symbol in China and Vietnam.
“The poachers had tracked the rhino until dark, and then they shot him in the shoulder, aiming for his heart,” explained Simon Naylor, Phinda Reserve Manager. “The rangers were on their way to one of the guard towers, and even though it was a stormy night, they heard what they suspected to be the muffled crack of a silenced .375 rifle. The spotlight and the advancement of the rangers was enough to spook the poachers who were in the process of cutting off the horn.”
Simon proceeded to flip through horrific photographs of the bungled poaching attempt. The bullet didn’t kill the rhino, and that is often what happens.
“The first two or three blows went straight into the naval cavity. All these bushes over here were covered in blood,” Simon continued, pointing at the thickets to our left. “When the poachers were disturbed they dropped their axes and bolted. And then the rhino must have woken up, rolled over, and eventually died.”
In some instances the poachers will use their axe to chop the spine and paralyse the animal, or they will chop the Achilles tendon if it is still walking - anything to kill it without wasting a bullet.
Last year Phinda, a 23,000 hectare private reserve, lost four rhino to poaching, and seven in total since the crisis started in 2006 – not a lot in comparison to the rest of the province, which is being decimated by poachers.
Simon says a big part of the reason they have had so much success in preventing poaching is because of the relationship Phinda has with the neighbouring rural community, which dates back to the reserve’s inception two decades ago. Community members are the eyes and ears on the ground, and if they hear or see something suspicious they will often warn the reserve. After all, they also have an investment in tourism as many people from their community are employed at Phinda, and the conservancy supports them in various ways that include infrastructure and education.
Unfortunately arresting poachers is a losing battle. Every game reserve manager and anti-poaching unit I speak to right across the province throws their hands up in frustration when I ask about convictions: "What is the point of having laws when it doesn’t act as deterrent?"
South African criminal syndicates are working in conjunction with poachers from Mozambique, and the conviction rate of arrests are ashamedly low, often with poachers being let off with a fine or a warning. The KwaZulu Natal Province had the highest rates of poaching in 2015, after ‘ground zero’ Kruger National Park. It's becoming increasingly obvious that corruption is rife in the courts.
"So far 25 rhinos have been moved to Botswana, part of a joint initiative between &Beyond and Great Plains Conservation called Rhinos without Borders,” continues Simon when asked what Phinda does have control over. “By moving them to a country like Botswana, where there is a ‘no tolerance’ policy to poaching, we are developing a new breed of nucleus and an insurance policy for the species. Every translocated rhino is fitted with telemetry devices for ongoing research and monitoring purposes.”
After the visit to the poaching site, The Sharks players spent the rest of the day learning hands on anti-poaching skills, followed by a sunset sprint through the bushes with the tracker dogs – German Shorthaired Pointers, an affectionate breed that can run as fast as 50 kilometres an hour for four kilometres and travel up to 120 kilometres per day.
Just as the full moon was rising, the athletes decided they wanted to meet up with the night shift anti-poaching unit and give them all rugby jerseys as a small token of appreciation for their selfless hard work and dedication.
Full moon is always an anxious time for anti-poaching, a poacher's moon when the extra light makes it easier for them to move through the bush. On the drive over we came across a commanding black rhino, one of just 3,000 left in the world. It was a tug on the heartstrings sighting this prehistoric bull, knowing his life was in grave danger, even more than usual.
Sharks captain Patrick Lambie said more than a few words to the anti-poaching unit when he handed over the jerseys. The usually quiet, composed leader was visibly torn with emotion when he thanked the humble protectors again and again for risking their own lives to save our rhino.
The Sharks journey through Africa’s rhino holocaust is far from over. On the surface, spending time at a reserve like Phinda is a breath-taking experience with abundant wildlife and it’s no wonder even tourists are still unaware of the crisis. But just because we don’t see the blood and the bones, doesn’t mean it’s not there. And it’s up to every one of us to protect our natural world, and to honour the rangers and the rhinos that have lost their lives for no other motive than greed and ego.
We’re out of time. This is a watershed year, and South Africans and the world will need to unite in the race to save the rhino from extinction. We can, and we must do more.
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