Updated: Jun 24
A loud “Chip-trrrrrrrrr” rings close to my ears. This is undoubtfully one of my favourite calls in the bush, except it is early August and this intra-African migrant, the woodlands kingfisher, is still on route back here which thus must make it the call of my alarm clock. It is early and still dark however over the years I have trained myself not to think but to rather just throw my legs out of bed. I do this, turn on the gas and put on a kettle. Soon the aroma of coffee sees similarly clad figures in drab colours rise out of their tents mumbling good mornings. It is not before long the banter amongst the team of volunteers shows their energetic commitment.
The vehicles start and “radio checks” are undertaken. Initially moving in a similar dusty direction they split into two groups to patrol different poaching-hot-spots. It is a massive area and the choice of where to go requires thought. After some time on tracks that are hard on the vehicles we stop. In practiced motions the team members quietly get out of the vehicles and quickly gear up. In soft voices the strategy is planned. Initially walking in single file, with the most experienced rifle taking up the lead, the team after a kilometer or so nears the drainage line it wishes to clear. This group also splits into two, taking opposite sides of the dry stream whilst forming an extended-line. After whispered radio co-ordination, the single word “mobile” sees the group moving forward. We are in the Greater Kruger Park Conservancy, besides having to deal with potentially dangerous animals, armed poachers are a very real possibility. An extended line, by simple nature of its difference to a single file, exposes each of the team members. This is serious work and experience in this environment takes years of dedication to develop.
Stealthfully, and determinedly, they move forward. Suddenly a distinct “churrrrrrr” breaks the silence and the “line” stops. Some grip the for-end and pistol grips of their rifle stocks just a little tighter. The red-billed oxpeckers have not only alerted us but the three dagga boys as well. We see them turn and run noisily through the mixed riverine shrub. Shortly afterwards a civet breaks cover almost under the feet of one of the less experienced group members, his rather amusing response made me think of the break-dancers back in the mid-eighties. After time it is easy to slip into a headspace where you place one foot ahead of the other, this has on more than one occasion caused us a near potential headache of severe proportions, and we thus work hard at practising constant focussed situational awareness.
Our middle man, critical to maintaining the formation and integrity of the line, raises his hand signalling us to stop. He has found a snare and using sign language he pulls the group together. With bush tuned eyes the group find, and dismantle, 14 carefully positioned snares. The poachers, often highly skilled in bush-craft, know exactly where to place them. Different poachers tie off, I assume unintentionally, the difficult to bend fencing wire with a unique signature knot and typically place them in clusters that are able to efficiently and indiscriminately target animals. Having again taken formation the middle man signals the group forward. An unarmed, newer member, carries the snares. He is happy that there are only 14, as over distance and in the lowveld heat, there is a fundamental difference in the weight of 14 versus 70 snares.
Suddenly the radio breaks with “Dzingi Dzingi”, my Tsonga nick name, I am called to come across. I move over from the outside of the line to be met with the loud hum of blow flies that have descended in mass on the body of bloated hippo lying in the stench of his own fluids. The signs of his lengthily struggle are obvious and the snare made of thick cable to target particularly buffalo has cut deeply into his flesh. Based on his position, within the cover of the trees in the drainage line, and perhaps also having died only just over a day ago, he has not yet been found by the vultures. I observe the team pay their individual respects before removing another 8 snares from the site. The bonds that form over time amongst long standing team members are difficult to describe. We record the required information and move off sombrely but determined to continue making a difference. Over the fast passing years I have encountered so many poached animals, both snared and poisoned, across a vast array of species of ungulates [across the full spectrum of odd toed, even toed and near ungulate], raptors and carnivores, that I have stopped counting. Although we are no longer surprised by what we see, it never gets easier.
Sadly this is not an unusual occurrence for those working on the front line, it is an increasing problem encountered across South Africa and the African continent. The challenges we face as conservationists are serious and are further reaching into our societal thread than is often understood. Poaching, whether for subsistence, bush meat or syndicate based purposes, is deeply fuelled by poor socio-economic circumstance. Job creation and education are fundamental to curbing this problem. Although poaching is horrific, by far the greatest conservation threat we are confronted with is habitat encroachment and the demands of a burgeoning human population. The principles of sustainable utilisation of resource, as defined by the IUCN, require much deeper exploration and understanding by the general population and equally so the business world. To shift from using these often “loosely thrown around” words to appropriate behaviours that are deeply engrained within our psyche will require changes in attitude and education, this is across all sectors of our industry and demographic representation.
It is a couple of hours later and we have returned to camp. Each of the team members moves to their favorite high point to improve weak mobile signal and to make contact with beloved families who understandingly allow us the time away. The bush is hard on equipment and tool boxes are broken to undertake necessary repairs or improvements. The experience is very different to the typical bush excursion – There is no time for rest. Later that evening whilst eating supper around the fire the group is chatting about the day, species interactions, conservation, ethical approaches and extractions as well as life in general. Close calls always receive a little extra attention as they are described in detail to the small audience painted in the colours of fire light. A little later some of us get up to go to bed, we are too exhausted to stay up and tomorrow morning the alarm will again wake us early. As my head hits the pillow I say a quiet prayer thanking the creator for the privilege of being able to do this work, to look after my family at home, to preserve the few wild spaces left and to bring peace to the world. In minutes I am fast asleep.
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