Anti-poaching rangers’ lives are constantly in danger. It becomes important that all the other ways that they can empower themselves, must be used to the limit.
Intelligence, surveillance and tracking data are three such force-multipliers for anti-poaching rangers.
Tracking is a powerful weapon both before and after the sound of a high caliber hunting rifle rippled through the air.
To my guide here in the veld along the fence of the border between Mozambique and South Africa (next to the Kruger National Park), an anti-poaching ranger, rifle fire is a familiar sound.
Not only is he used to shots ringing out during wildlife crime but also in war situations. He is a trained British army sniper and paratrooper who have seen much action during the Afghanistan wars.
Now on patrol as a non-gun carrying member of an anti-poaching unit, protecting the fence between the notorious Poachers’ Heaven and game reserves, his tracking skills are one of the tools that he relies on.
It is of paramount importance that these reserves are well protected against wildlife crime.
The area that his team protects is right opposite to the Intensive Protective Zone where the highest percentage of white rhinos is found in the world. The rate of poaching though decreasing is still far too high to sustainably keep the population intact.
For a month at a turn he rises at 4:30 in the morning to patrol at 20 kilometre per hour an almost 40 kilometre fence. Two trackspotting rangers will stand on the back of his bakkie for this patrol of the almost three metre high electrified fence.
We pass a dam where a fish eagle overlooks the rangers on foot close to the water’s edge, outlook posts for tourists and even a building full of bullit holes from the civil war fought in the seventies.
Stormed by two young elephant bulls, we take off hurriedly. Sounds of an owl on the fence in case, follow us hauntingly through the window.
On evening patrol a pervading smell like that of old beans follows us from a close by vlei. The legend is that this is the hour of the mamba at twilight, a time when kids must go home. Then this smell gets pervasive.
A town close by even carries a name that sounds like that of this dangerous snake.
The fence on the border of the reserve forces poachers to leave a footprint. With one eye on the road and the other on the metre wide strip next to the fence, he scans the ground next to the fence during various patrols for any lead that poachers may have entered or exited the reserve.
It is his early morning newspaper.
Intensely patrolling a fence-line for poacher’s tracks is part of his team’s strategy.
The moment tracks are found, the operations room is notified by radio of the location. The chopper pilot as well as the tracking dog and handler will soon be on their way.
In the meantime the tracks will be analysed.
Time is of the essence. Poachers can cover the veld in four to five kilometres per hour. Once they are over the fence every minute is vital.
The rangers on patrol immediately start tracking the poachers. Estimations are made how many hours they are ahead.
With no rain the sand can be hard and no clear imprint might be available to follow. But a trained eye will spot sand moved underneath a rock or any slight indenture.
Poachers can also jump from rock to rock to be untraceable. A track expert will however even be able to see how a loose rock moved in the sand underneath a poacher’s shoe.
The trick according to my guide and track instructor to reading a track is to always position your body that you can see the shadows in the track. To him that means you must be able to look up from the track into the sun. This means another patrol today. Now the sun is still climbing into the sky.
Poachers often need to do 60 kilometres in three days. They carry bread and tinned fish as well as water bottles. These are often left behind once a rhino horn is removed.
Often, left behind on their way in, are empty two litre bottles in which a muti-mix was carried. These bottles will often be found with a small cloth. Before they take to climbing the fence, poachers would wash with this mix believing it makes them invisible.
The poachers also knot cloth bands around their arms, bodies as well as their rifles. These are dipped in muti.
He explains that also carried by poachers and often found by trackers, a little tin of muti used like snuff.
A typical poacher group would have a rifle handler and this member of the team would be carefully selected because he will carry a .458 and .375 rifle. The navigator would be someone who knows the park, has been in before and can also cope at night. The remaining member carries knives, axes, food and water.
One of the most important factors is reading the track so closely that the make and number of shoe the poacher wore can be identified.
To my tracking instructor this is what tracking is all about.
To keep rhinos and elephants under his care protected. To see to it that there are no more rhino tears.
Making sure the shadows in the night become faces that can be arrested. Making sure the tracks lead to a life behind bars.