Text: Noelle van Muiden of RvM Wildlife Photography
Photos: Roel van Muiden of RvM Wildlife Photography
*Names have been changed so as not to compromise any of the Anti-Poaching Rangers identities.
Socks. The number one item on their wish list is socks. ‘So the guys do not get Trench-Rot.’ *Steven Kruger blows the words out as if expelling demons, as we sit in the heat of the veldt, smoking cigarettes after a rifle training session. ‘Water dispensers - 25L, Training - Specifics on intel gathering, gas cookers, and night vision thermals. That is what we need.’
Steven has been doing Anti-Poaching full time and voluntary for nine years; first in the Balule Game Reserve and then the Klaserie Private Game Reserve. Both lie inside South Africa at the frontline of the poaching incidents. He earned a measly R1800 a month. There his main encounters in Anti-Poaching, ‘was shooting dogs.’ Stray, un-spayed dogs, that come through from the townships and villages surrounding many of the game reserves and National Parks. The dogs bring diseases like Mange and Canine Distemper that threaten the wild populations of Black-Backed Jackal and Wild Dog. They can also bring in Tuberculosis (TB), which can endanger any, and all, wildlife. Steven takes off his sunglasses and hands me a smoke of my own. He tells me of how the lion and rhino poaching has increased over the past six years where he is now working after leaving the Balule. The elephant poaching as well.
One hundred rhinos were killed in South Africa in October 2013 alone. The latest numbers have the total number of rhinos poached thus far this year at seven hundred and ninety. A staggering four hundred and seventy-six of which were poached in Kruger National Park. The Black Market need for rhino horn, (used in Traditional Medicines in places like Vietnam and China and in ceremonial dagger horns in Middle Eastern countries), has driven the price to well over USD$30,000 per kilogram. Some reports say well over USD$65,000 per kilogram..
There has not been a rhino poaching incident on Steven’s current reserve since April 2013. Here he is a volunteer Anti-Poaching Ranger. ‘We are the reaction unit.’ When the kak hits the proverbial fan Steven, and several others like him, join the permanent Anti-Poaching team to sort the problem out. Field Guide by day Anti-Poaching Ranger. When asked who he encounters as Poachers, where do these people originate from, ‘Mozzies and Zims’ comes the reply as the smoke curls around his head.
Disdain has never been worn so well. Scorn and a resilience one does not see often outside the armed forces. No local South Africans involved in any incidences in his province, excepting the strong held suspicion of one local vet who used to work on the property. Not enough evidence but they know who he is he tells me. The Poachers use ‘.375’s and .458’s [the same calibre rifles needed to be a walking Trails Guide in South Africa. Easy to use and easy to buy.] Kitted with homemade suppressors and making on average R300,000 - R400,000 per person per horn.’ A staggering amount of money considering these men would normally earn around R3000 - R5000 a month if anything at all.
South Africa is home to over eighty percent of Africa’s remaining rhino population with a mere twenty-five thousand left in number. The horn is made of the same keratin that makes up human hair and finger nails. With these staggering numbers of deaths, and the large sums paid to attain the horn, how can we stop this onslaught and save our National Heritage? As well as save the Continents last remaining stronghold of two ecologically important species, the Black and White Rhino?
None of this even starts to touch the poaching issues surrounding elephant ivory and now the threat against the few remaining wild lions. There are only seven viable wild lion populations left in Africa. Two, or three depending on the source, are left in South Africa. Lion bones are high on the priority list of many eastern Nations. Their meat is served in restaurants in The States and Europe.
These days, poaching is reaching almost epic numbers. Rangers literally risk their lives for the lives of animals like rhino and elephant and all they are asking for is socks. Canine units, special forces units, and traditionally trained anti-poaching units. These make up the front lines, and sometimes the last line, of defense for South Africa’s rhino populations.
With rhino poaching syndicates becoming ever more intelligent, cryptic, and stealthy, the upkeep of our Anti-Poaching Rangers is of upmost importance. Without them we do not stand a chance in stopping, or even curbing, the decline to extinction of these iconic animals. Steven agrees, more pay, more training, more socks.
*Matthew van Zyl wanted to be a farmer. Then a Field Guide. Now he is a permanent Anti-Poaching Ranger. Both he and Steven feel it is their duty to protect their National Heritage. Their countries’ special wildlife. Mat makes R6000 a month. Actually, he tells me, all his guys, across the board no matter the hierarchy, make R6000 a month. ‘We have to pay for our own food, medical supplies, pension, and medical evacuation out of that R6000.’
His men have to feed not only themselves but their families on R6000 a month. They are provided housing but it comes bare, no beds, no mattress, no couches, not even spoons and forks. Mat had to buy fridges out of pocket. ‘
If one of my guys needs medical help I am only allowed to drive him to clinic. I am not allowed to call on the reserve’s medical team as we are under contract. I will not be reimbursed if I pay for his medical treatment. Where would the money come from? We are a permanent unit but under contract to the reserve. They will not pay for medical evacuation or assistance.’ All of that is paid out of pocket.
The Anti-Poaching Rangers spend twenty days in the bush with their kit, paid for out of their pockets and consisting of webbing, water, an R1 rifle, and army rations and not much more else. They then get eight days of leave. No rest for the weary. If the team gets taken on a permanent contract they will be able to use the reserves medical back-up, but they were promised a year ago it would become a permanent contract and still nothing has materialized.
The Canine Unit both Mat and Steven work next to is fully paid for from private donations. A new vehicle, dog food, training for the dogs, but the men who work with the dogs and the men who work alongside these teams have to scrounge for their own food and beg for socks in their wish lists. Many people do not understand that an Anti-Poaching Rangers basic needs are hardly met, so they spend their donations on the dogs, thinking all the time that they are keeping South Africa’s wildlife safe. Steven and Mat both agree the Canine Units are useful and more than needed.
Mat needs not only socks for his team but more training. To date they need the following qualifications to become an Anti-Poaching Ranger on his team: Self-loading R1 competency, Anti-Poaching experience - ‘There are really only three providers of Anti-Poaching training with Protrack out of Hoedspruit and Quemic being the best two’ Mat states matter-of-fact as he cleans up finished rounds, doppies, from the sun parched ground.. - Big Five experience - ‘Like Guiding’ - survival experience and they must be between eighteen and forty years old - ‘Thirty-five years is better. Forty is a bit old.’
When asked if South Africa has been successful in rehabilitating Poachers into Anti-Poachers like in North Luangwa National Park, Zambia, Steven says no. ‘Not here!’ with a very decisive turning of his head. His hard lined lips say it all. ‘They disappear too easily into the communities around the park here.’ Mat explains. ‘In the Lowveld the parks are closer together and people speak to each other, but here, if they make it into the communities or over the border to Botswana, that’s it.’ Most of the Unit’s intel comes from community members but these types of reliable sources are few and far between.
Mats biggest wish after more socks and more training, ‘Salaries of R10,000 to R12,000 with Medical Aid and Pension.R6000 per month is not enough.’ To put this in context, Petrol Station attendants went on strike recently in South Africa to up their salaries to R6500 a month. That is R500 more than what Mat and his unit are making and Petrol Attendants only fill up your car, they do not put their own lives on the line in the heat, the cold, the dry, the wet, to save the lives of South Africa’s wildlife.
Why are they not being paid more? Why are salaries and benefits so low? How can we fight against the scourge of poaching with syndicates that rival the cocaine syndicates in South America in money, power, and resources? How can we expect someone who is earning so little and doing so much not to take a bribe? The easy answer, put your money where your mouth is. Support our Troops, as it were.
Donate to Anti-Poaching units and speak up. These guys do not go on strike. They do not complain. They carry on and do the dirty work the rest of us do not necessarily have the stomach for. And all to protect wildlife that can be seen on game reserves all over South Africa. An average guides salary is more than R6000 a month and he or she is the one who is taking overseas, and the local guests who can afford the lodges, to see the animals that Steven, Mat, and thousands of other men and women all over South Africa and Africa, spend days and nights out in the bush to protect.
A few days later I meet Mat and some of his men for a training exercise, Jungle Lane. They are shooting at manlike targets. ‘Two shots. To kill.’ *Charles, like Steven a volunteer Anti-Poacher, mumbles around his Stuyvesant Blue. He and Edger help Mat train the guys in weapon handling. It is over thirty-eight Celsius in the noonday heat and the young men, shiny faces smiling at my hello, are still soft around the eyes.
These are new recruits learning the ropes. They are in full kit, the sweat is pooling around the straps and seeping through their camo ensemble. Each taking their turn to half run, a bit hunched, leaning into their R1‘s as they shoot their pseudo-poachers. They earnestly attempt their drill. The only difference between this exercise and the real deal is that poachers shoot back and they shoot to kill.
I share a small silence and a cigarette with these men. With Mat, with Charles, with Edger and their new recruits. Lighting my cigarette, I look at these men. Black and white. South African men who decided that this is what they wanted to do. Whether as a heart felt National Duty, or as a way to feed their families, these men with kind eyes and big hearts. Paid peanuts if anything at all, have the resilience, or buddings of, that of a Black Mamba. They do all of this in thirty-eight degree heat to save rhinos, elephants, and lions.
The heat is stifling now. I glance at the small pup-tents and take a long drink of my now warm water. I look at these sweaty men. Some smiling at a small joke. Others in deep discussion with a trainer. I look off into the bush. The heat is rising in waves. I look forward to when we can find a seat free of biting flies and dusty wind.
And all they ask for is socks...