One finger on the trigger

IMAGE01_P1010392Joining an anti-poaching unit in South Africa, Sporting Rifle’s Byron Pace follows the effort to protect rhino against the onslaught of poachers.

Dropping the seat back, we settled into position. The small hours were already upon us, and we fought to stay alert beneath the weight of tiredness. The radio played quietly, the warm tones of Phil Phillips making me think of home after a month in the bush. With three days until full moon we were rapidly approaching the climax of our danger period, clear skies bathing the land in cool hues from the night time sun. To our right and left the parched dirt road faded into the distance, lined on either side by an electrified game fence. Now we would wait, armed and ready to stop any vehicle that came our way.

IMAGE02_IMG_0792The previous night had been quiet, with both foot patrols and roadblocks giving up nothing. In a way this was a good thing, but the team was desperate to start cutting the arms and legs off the rhino poaching monster. This required arrests and intel. There was every chance tonight would be the night we suffered an infiltration, but there was no way to know. The boys had to stay frosty.

I had joined an anti-poaching patrol on a large farm between Johannesburg and the Botswana border. This particular area had the highest density of rhino in the world, with 912 owned by one individual.

Many people have the wrong impression of square-lipped white rhino. Being part of the Big Five, they are often viewed as aggressive and dangerous, not in the least bit helped by dramatised television programmes and floundering presenters.

IMAGE03_P1010374The truth is that rhino were only included in the list of dangerous game because of the black rhino, which is a completely different kettle of fish. A black rhino wakes up in a bad mood. The white rhino, on the other hand, has a tolerant temperament – they are the gentle giants of the bush. I would be much more comfortable walking among a group of white rhino than through a field of cows. This is one of the reasons rhino poachers have been so successful in their endeavours, the weighty horn making the white rhino most viable to poach.

The demand for rhino horn seems to be ever increasing, fuelling an escalating poaching problem. Les Brett, co-owner of the Threatened Wildlife Protection Academy (TWPA), explained that although there is well-documented use of rhino horn as an aphrodisiac, this is only the tip of the iceberg. It is also being sold across Asia for its reputed properties in curing diseases such as cancer. Further to that, in these parts it is seen as a great honour to receive the gift of a rhino horn, and puts the recipient in an esteemed position in society. Of course, the western world knows that the use of rhino horn for medicinal purposes is farcical. It’s little more than compressed hair, the same as our own fingernails. It is staggering that for such a rapidly evolving part of the world, there is such blindness to basic science.

Les emphasised that there should be no illusions regarding those involved in the poaching operations. These are the very same people responsible for smuggling drugs and people trafficking. They are hardened criminals who run incredibly sophisticated operations.

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At the very bottom of the chain are the locals employed to do the killing and horn removal. They are not acting alone. The whole operation takes weeks of preparation, with scouts being dropped off in the bush to gather intel on the movements of people and rhino. They are well equipped too, with night vision becoming a standard bit of kit. The information gathered from the scouts is fed to HQ, along with any inside information they have managed to bribe from the farm workers. Sadly, the vast majority of poaching is done with inside help.

Although resources and logistics are usually organised from the Asian side, do not think that the locally employed muscle isn’t sophisticated enough to pull such an operation off. The evidence so far shows that the tentacles of rhino poaching are entangled with vets and businessmen alike, providing the structure and organisation to successfully extract horns out of Africa and into Asia – often within 72 hours. It may seem like a colossal amount of effort, but that horn will fetch $65,000 per kilogram on the black market. Rhino horn is now more valuable by weight than gold, with the average horn from a single rhino weighing up to 8kg.

Les explained that they were beginning to get on top of the problem, with anti-poaching units being properly deployed and game scouts permanently positioned in the bush as their eyes and ears. Armed patrols with trained personnel combine foot patrols and roadblocks during the hours of darkness, using the latest in NV and thermal imaging. Although the poachers would far rather evade than fight, they are armed and dangerous, and if cornered they will shoot their way out. The teams have to be prepared to use deadly force where required. Of course this is only a last resort, as a dead poacher is of limited use. What they want are arrests, where interrogation could lead to vital intel against the war on rhinos.

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By the time I reached my last night with the anti-poaching unit, the long nights were beginning to take their toll. The foot patrols were fine, but staying awake during roadblocks was becoming a mission. I was in desperate need of my famous Pro-Plus and Red Bull combo. As the sun fell through the western sky, the last glow of warmth gave way to the familiar chill of night. Underestimating how cold it gets after the sun goes down is a mistake you will only make once in an African winter.

The patrols had been split up by camps, with some personnel on roadblocks while the others struck out on foot. Tonight I would be joining Les, hiking across an area called Bull Camp thanks to the large number of big rhino bulls being held there. This was undoubtedly the most exciting part of patrol work. For more than an hour we stalked the ground, stopping periodically to scan the bush with NV. So far all was quiet, but at any moment it could all change.

It was only 9pm but we had already covered a vast tract of ground. The moon drifted high above us, casting its cold light through the darkness onto the land. Bathed in icy blues, every shadow and distant shape drew our attention. The comfort of daylight had long since disappeared, and the nights at this time of year are long. It would be 5.30 the following morning before we could think about heading back to base.

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Tracking back towards our entry point, Les and I approached a sparsely populated plantation running around 200m in length. We slowly picked our way through, weaving between trees as dark shadows shimmered across our moonlit silhouettes. Nearing the end, Les stopped abruptly. Looking ahead I could already see why. Leaning back over his shoulder towards me, he mouthed “rhino” while pointing in front of us.

Less than 20ft away, the awesome mass of a big bull lay motionless in the dirt, his head slumped and still. We froze, staring through the darkness. The rhino was fast asleep, but he wasn’t alone. Partly obscured by tree trunks and bushes, a further two bulls stood guard to our left.

“It’s not the rhino you see that will kill you. It’s the ones you don’t see,” Les whispered in hushed tones, keeping half an eye in front. Now fully awake and aware, the first bull was on his feet, sidling closer to check us out. I could see every detail, from its long face and re-growing horn, past its broad shoulders and down the rough textured, thickskinned body. After some time we moved on, leaving the bulls to enjoy their night undisturbed. Now it was time for me to join Andonis Sarmais on a roadblock.

IMAGE07_poached rhino (2)We had spent a fair amount of time together of the previous few days, and soon settled into our last night patrolling together. As we talked rubbish about something or other a light caught my eye. It was the first vehicle we had seen all week. Jumping out of the truck Andonis manned his roadblock position, ready to flag the vehicle down. In moments it was upon us. Showing no signs of slowing down, the Hilux flew passed us at 90mph plus. The game was on.

We gave chase, Andonis radioing ahead in an attempt to cut the vehicle off. Not far ahead, another road cut away from the farm, and we were struggling to keep pace with the dust lingering in their wake. Not having been able to raise the other team on the radio, we were now on a solo mission.

Barely holding the road as we turned off the main track, we were rapidly losing ground every second of the pursuit. The visibility was so bad we may as well have been driving with our eyes closed. There was simply too much dust being kicked up from the dirt track. The only option was to revert to driving with NV. By slowing the pace down enough to allow our path to clear, we hoped the lack of pursuing lights would encourage the vehicle we were following to slow down, thinking we had abandoned the chase. We were wrong.

As morning broke and daylight returned to the bush, every rhino remained accounted for: another night had passed without fatality. This was a small victory for the anti-poaching unit. Perhaps one day their efforts will be rewarded with the ultimate victory, and rhino can once more sleep at ease under the African skies. Only time will tell.

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