“We’re hunting poachers all the time. If you just sit and wait for gunshots, all you get is carcasses.”
So echoes the words of Mark Preston, a former metal worker from Johannesburg who traded a life in the city for one in the bush more than a decade ago. Now, along with a rag-tag crew of anti-poaching rangers, they fight the ever growing issue of rhino poaching.
What started simply as wildlife conservation, has now become something more militaristic, with Preston and his group resembling an image more closely related to paramilitary soldiers, complete with berets and semi-automatic firearms, to help save rhinos.
However, despite the good fight that these gentlemen campaign with, despite the foot patrols, CCTV cameras, special task forces, and everything else being employed to make sure the job gets done, the Hoedspruit area is still losing rhinos on a daily basis. And this reflects throughout the areas still inhabited by rhinos.
Conservationists and anti-poaching task forces all agree on a frightening new trend that’s rearing its ugly head. It seems clear that more and more poaching operations that used to be based in Mozambique and launched in the eastern side of the eastern side of a private game reserve on the border of the Kruger National Park in South Africa are no more, and that operations are now being set up on the west.
In the Kruger Park alone, 750 rhinos have been poached in 2015 alone. Last year, 1,215 have been slaughtered across the country, which, according to Save The Rhino, equates to about one rhino killed every eight hours.
Working in small groups, poachers, armed with high caliber weapons kill the rhinos, whilst carrying smaller arms to protect themselves from groups of rangers such as Mark’s group.
Also, for many, the prize is worth the cost of death. Rhino horn yields more than its weight in gold in both Vietnam and China, driven by a demand as it’s seen as a sign of wealth and where it’s believed to have medicinal properties.
With rhino horn made from keratin, the same protein one can find in a human fingernail, it can still fetch between US$1,100 and US$5,550 for a single ounce on the black market – that’s roughly a staggering amount of between ZAR14,800 and ZAR74,694.
However, with conservationists and anti-poaching rangers having done everything to stop the slaughter of this beautiful animal – from relocation efforts, to protectively removing and poisoning them – all efforts have still been in vein. Now, private and national nature reserves are now resorting to fighting back hard with military tactics to stop the slaughter once and for all.
Paramilitary anti-poaching groups, who put new recruits through agonizing boot camps, are rushing these men into the field to combat these poachers with necessary might and aggression, and they mean business. In fact, just five years ago, rangers were simply trained on conservationism and tourism. Today, it’s a different story, with rangers being taught how to handle weapons and court cases.
Spending months reading signs of the bushveld, rangers are being trained to call in anything that looks suspect; litter, footprints, broken branches might all seem like tourists who don’t really give a hoot about conservationism, however, with the looming threat of rhino poaching, these signs are a surefire indication of poachers being in the vicinity.
With the good that this could do, this bush war against rhino poaching terrors doesn’t seem to be working either.
Vincent Barkas, owner of Protrack, says that by having boots on the ground with guns is what’s needed, it’s also the problem with fixing the problem, as this militaristic stance creates a resentment towards wildlife and nature conservation. And, given that in an area with high unemployment and historical inequalities, there isn’t much love lost for the private reserve who lose rhinos.
In a game where intelligence is everything, groups, the likes of which led by Preston is sometimes a dead-end game, as the individuals supplying the information could easily be leading them on, as poachers are always able to pay more for the right info, making Mark and other rangers’ lives that much more difficult.
There was great excitement in the Bush recently. Apparently, so we were told, a “huge” snake, probably a Black Mamba, (every snake seen in these parts is assumed to be a black mamba as it is one of the most feared snakes in this area), had killed and was busy eating a buck!
People came from miles around to view this spectacular – forgetting the most important rule in the bush – any animal or reptile is at its most dangerous while protecting it’s young, or it’s prey!
The snake was large, almost 4 metres in length, and what was supposed to be a black mamba, turned out to be a lovely big African Rock python.
The snake was about 5 metres into the bush from the dirt road, and by the time we got there, people had already walked a track through the bush and created a lovely path to the reptile, so finding him was very easy. The bulge in his stomach was huge! It was a baby Bushbuck.
A lady had filmed the entire show, with the fretting Bushbuck mother standing by unable to rescue her baby. The snake had quietly approached the baby buck, waited until the mother’s back was turned, then wrapped itself around the buck, suffocating the infant with it’s coils, and then proceeded to swallow it! You can image what a sight that must have been – a snake’s mouth is quite small in comparison to an entire baby buck! The snake would have had to dislocate its own jaw in order for it to be able to swallow the buck, then re-align it once the job was done.
After the snake had swallowed the buck, he could not move. He rolled under a tree for protection and settled down to wait for the buck to digest which could take up to 7 days. He was pretty safe – he thought.
He never expected what was to him a natural process of catching and eating his prey, to cause such a stir amongst the human population. Soon, people were coming from far and wide to view this spectacular! Most people watched quietly, some brought cameras and quietly snapped away, awe struck at the sight of this huge snake with an even bigger bulge in it’s stomach!
Eventually, after about 4 days the snake was able to move a little and was becoming irritated with the people who disturbed him constantly, so the local Rangers cordoned off the area and allowed no more access to the snake. We are told he disappeared into the bush a few days later, not needing to eat for a very long time to come!
Never a dull moment in the bush. Even normal everyday tasks like eating, can become a major spectacle!
Strange things happen when you least expect them to…!
One day, while driving along the Crocodile River which separates Marloth Park from the Kruger National Park, a massive herd of about 150 head of buffalo came wandering down to the river for a well deserved drink and to wallow in the cool water. The temperatures around that time ranged from 33 – 44 degrees! It was hot, and these were big creatures in need of cooling down! I stopped the car and left the comfort of the air-conditioned interior to try and get a little bit closer to these majestic animals. One of them seemed to be limping along the river bed, with what looked like a snare around its neck with its front left leg caught through the snare and tucked up under its chin!
At that moment, a gentleman who had also been observing the herd, approached me. He had a pair of binoculars with him and was able to see that the animal’s leg was indeed hooked through something around its neck, but what I thought to be a snare was in fact a radio-controlled tracking collar! We needed to do something, so I phoned the Kruger Rangers at the Crocodile Bridge Gate, to inform them of what had happened. The person in the office took down my phone number and promised that someone would phone me back. Within 10 minutes, the Head Ranger phoned to find out more details.
Firstly, he asked what the colour of the collar was. The gentleman with the binoculars had a look and discovered that it was red. Next, could we see the cell number printed on it? At that, we both collapsed with laughter! What was the Ranger going to do, I asked, phone the buffalo and ask him to take his leg out of the collar? This is where my ignorance of all things technical reared its head! Apparently, the animals are tracked via satellite. Random animals throughout the herd are collared and a specific cell number is then allocated to that animal. Once the Ranger dials the cell number, all info of the animals movements are sent back to him via satellite – instant tracking!
Unfortunately, we were not able to see the cell number, so the Ranger hung up so he could make another plan.
That was that, I thought.
Later that same night I received a call from the Ranger. He said that they had climbed aboard a helicopter and had flown along the river and spotted the animal concerned! They then darted her – a female buffalo – and while she was asleep were able to remove her leg from the collar and refit the collar so that the problem would not happen again.
She then woke up and joined the rest of the herd.
On Cahora Bassa that doesn’t hold true. I was paddling about one and a half kilometers from the shore line into strong headwinds and big waves. Something made me turn around and I saw a croc larger than the kayak coming for me from my left about 100 metres away. It was moving very fast with it’s neck out of the water. There was no way I was going to out paddle it, so I stopped and waited for it to get closer so that I could hit it with a pencil flare. It took all my self control not to shoot the flare off straight away and when the croc was about 5 metres away I fired. It didn’t go off. From then onwards, everything was in slow motion. Although the whole thing could only have taken seconds, I had time to think and act. As the croc got within a paddle length I hit it on the nose with my paddle – but didn’t get in a good strike as it was right at the end of my reach.
I then brought the paddle back to hit it again but it came out the water at me.
At first it’s mouth was closed, but as it got closer it opened its mouth and I could see right down it’s throat. Expecting a huge impact I lunged forward with all my weight and rammed the paddle into it’s mouth. It snapped shut and bits of fiberglass flew out everywhere. The impact, together with the horrific smell of its breath, pushed me over to the right. The crocs front leg was on the kayak next to my hip and as I rolled back upright, I managed to push it off using the paddle (which at this stage was still in it’s mouth). Thinking that I had to keep it focused on the paddle and not me, I pushed it around in it’s mouth. Then I let the paddle go, rolled upside down, pulled the splash cover and froze. I drifted away from the kayak expecting an attack from the croc at any moment. It took all my self control again not to swim flat out for the shore. All I wanted to do was to get onto land. I thought my life was about to come to an end because if the croc came for me I knew I didn’t have a chance – It must have weighed about 700 kg’s.
I didn’t know how long I drifted for, but eventually started doggy paddling to the shore.
It seemed to take hours to get close to the land. As I got close to the shore, my foot brushed past a submerged log – my heart tried to jump out of my mouth!
I crawled onto the shore and cannot put that feeling into words. I was crying like a baby.
I spent the night in the bush in an African village and was rescued by my son the following day on one of the Capenta fishing rigs on the dam.
It took me 5 days to find that the kayak had been handed in to Mozambique police at the Zumbo border post. The police would not give it to me because the diplomatic mission in Maputo had advised them that T.F van Coller was dead – drowned or eaten by a croc.
One morning while I was taking the tent down, two hyenas took an interest in me. They walked towards me from the tree line so I shouted at them and they retreated. The second time, my shouting didn’t have much effect so I threw a couple of stones at them, which stopped them for a while. When they came forward again, I had to use a pencil flair to send them on their way.
One morning I stopped to chat to a local who was repairing his fishing net on the bank of the river and as the guy was so friendly I gave him some fishing hooks. He then became most insistant that he had to repay me the favour, and as he was the only one with a few cows in the region I had to accompany him back to his village to meet his family and drink some milk. He called one of his sons as we arrived, who returned with one of the cows. Using his dirty and muddy hands he proceeded to milk the cow into a calabash. I had to drink warm milk from the calabash, which got stuck in my throat with each swallow.
And then I met the crocodiles! While paddling down a side channel at Chirundu, I saw a big crocodile coming off the bank. It attacked the back of the kayak first and then let it go, which allowed me to get in two more paddle strokes. But it came back and hit the kayak again, clamping its teeth around the back of the rudder system. I tried to paddle away and got in one or two strokes when the crocodile twisted the kayak in its mouth, which threw me into the water! Fortunately I was close to the bank.
Unfortunately the bank was a two metre high cliff. Just as I got to the top on my first attempt, I fell back into the water – the crocodile was still having a go at the kayak with the front of the kayak in its mouth now. On my second attempt I got to the top of the bank, scratched and bleeding on my chin and shoulders. After about ten minutes and a bit of ‘rock persuasion’ the croc let go of the kayak and I was able to retrieve it downriver and hide it in the bush. It was a 20km walk upriver to Mana Pools campsite – avoiding herds of buffalo and elephants. The game warden helped me retrieve the kayak and take it to Harare to get the rudder repaired. Apparently lightning doesn’t strike twice…..
And so ends part 2 – watch out for part 3 …coming soon!
Excerpts from a day in the life of our own adventurer, Tim van Coller, owner of Bushwise, as he attempted to conquer the mighty Zambezi River in a kayak!
His Dream, from the age of 18, had been to paddle the Zambezi River from source to mouth. On the 18th of September 2004, at the age of 53, he started from the border post at a place called Chavuma, situated between Angola and Zambia.
His goal: to paddle the 2900km to the mouth of the mighty Zambezi, using a Prijon Sea Kayak, with 35kg of provisions and equipment, including a GPS and Satellite phone.
He was alone, and with no back-up, in the middle of Africa!
This is his story….
The first week of paddling was very hard – stiff arms, cramping muscles and time to adjust to sleeping on the ground in a one-man tent with only myself for company. After that I got into a routine, and paddled eight to ten hours a day, covering 30km on average.
Fishing was great and I was able to supplement my diet with what I caught.
For the first 300km I didn’t see another white person. Some of the local women and children ran away screaming when they saw me as I doubt they had ever seen a white man before, especially not one paddling down the river in a bright yellow kayak! Generally the locals in Zambia were extremely friendly though – very poor but generous with what they had. I used to trade fish hooks, maize and food. The scenery was spectacular with beautiful African sunsets and horizons. Peace, quiet and tranquility were something to behold.
After about five days of paddling I stopped to make myself some lunch on a fairly narrow section of the river. There were a lot of over-hanging trees and large roots in the water, which I tied my kayak onto. I sat under the shade of a large tree on my haunches wearing a large white hat with sunglasses, my life jacket and bright yellow nylon splash cover around my waist. I heard a local in a mkora paddling up the river and as he got opposite me I waved at him and said ‘Hallo!’. His eyes got huge, his mouth opened and his jaw started moving but no sound was coming out! After a few seconds I heard a high-pitched scream ‘Tokolosh, Tokolosh!’ and his mkora took off up river like a speedboat! Even after I lost sight of the mkora I could still hear him screaming ‘Tokolosh, Tokolosh!’.
The first mishap occurred at the Ngonya Falls. With the help of four locals I portaged about 8km’s, but put in too early and fell out on some grade two rapids. I wound up drifting next to the kayak in a large pool with a number of hippo and after getting out in one piece I promised myself I would portage around any future rapids/waterfalls! Paddling the rapids above Victoria Falls was exhilarating and adrenaline-charged. I didn’t see much wildlife until I got below the falls – and then elephants. I was putting up my tent on the riverbank one evening when I got the feeling that something was watching me. I looked up and saw a young elephant walking towards me. With the distance now closing between us, I turned, ran and jumped off a two metre bank towards the river. The elephant turned and gave chase with its trunk up and ears flapping, trumpeting! It got to the edge of the bank and stood there flapping its ears, trumpeting and kicking up a cloud of dust. It then walked to the tent and trashed it using his trunk and legs……
Watch out for part 2 next month when we carry on this African adventure!