8 June 2018 – Months of planning finally came to fruition with the first visit of players of the Lions Rugby Union to Kruger National Park. The aim, to expose the players to the sheer magnitude of the SANParks Rhino Management Plan, and to meet some of the heroes behind the scenes.
The bush is a magical place, and people that spend time in it, often create opportunities. Return guests on trails in Kruger, put us in contact with Julian Redelinguys, Springbok and Lions Prop. Julian expressed the players’ desire to become involved with projects where they can make a difference.
A meeting between SANParks’ Head of Special Projects, Maj Gen (ret) Johan Jooste, Head of Environmental Crime Investigations, Kobus De Wet and Golden Lions Rugby Union CEO, Rudolf Straeuli at the Lions Head Quarters in JHB, set the ball in motion. Professional Rugby Players live, breath and play rugby and we were led by Julian to accommodate their needs. There has been a revolution at the Golden Lions Rugby Union the last years, where they put religion and each other first, and play an attractive brand of rugby. Family is crucial in this process and the players’ wives are very much part of the Lions Rugby Rhino Ambassadors.
Our base for the project was Swatika Camp, an unfenced tented camp with limited solar power and open air, gas geyser showers. The camp is used by SANParks Environmental Crimes Investigations to accommodate Investigators, South African Police Services members and SANParks ECI members. The camp on the banks of the Nwatinwambu drainage line in Kruger National Park’s unspoilt wilderness, added to the experience.
General Jooste designed a program for target groups, where one starts with death and the harsh realities of the Rhino Campaign, and we end and build it up with life and Rhino population expansion. We joined SANParks ECI Senior Investigator, Frik Rossouw and his team, at a crime scene. Every single Rhino carcass in Kruger National Park has to be documented by law, the cause of death is determined and the scene processed. The television series CSI is impressive and this is exactly what the ECI team does every day. They possess of skilled staff members that are able to determine where and how the animal was shot and whether the shooter was left or right handed, tracks are lifted, cartridges and projectiles recovered and the a sequence of events is constructed. In addition, ECI investigates and disrupts crime networks to ensure that justice is done.
Even though there was a sombre atmosphere, the Lions group asked questions and showed an understanding of the enormity of the task. We broke for a lunch in a dry riverbed, fringed by ancient riverine vegetation. An Elephant breeding herd silently appeared and walked towards the waterhole in front of us. We quietly stayed in our spot in the shade and whispered our planned escape route to the group if needed. As soon as the Elephants smelled their enemy downwind, a nervous tremor travelled through the family, herd members milled around the Matriarch before they headed off. This sobering experience put our impact as humans on wild animals in perspective.
Our next stop was with Bruce Leslie, Regional Ranger for Special Operations. Bruce displayed the equipment used for different operations; spoke about the conditions they operate in and introduced us to their Canine Colleagues. It was clear that Ranger Services, passionate about conservation, changed drastically. They have undergone para-military training and now conserve nature by defending it as top notch anti poaching units. The same passion drives them to fight for our heritage. It is incredible how the units have evolved, adapted and trained. How they have learnt and continue to learn what works, and how training and the use of Canines have been a game changer.
The Mission Area Joint Operations Centre or MAJOC, coordinates the efforts of the SAPS, SANDF and SANParks units. Information is received, recorded and sent promptly to ensure quick response. We were met by Mbongeni Tukela, Manager of the Kruger Mission Area. The development of the current anti poaching strategy forms a foundation for learning with experience. The incorporation of the best technology for the task at hand, adds to the effectiveness of Rangers and Canines in the field. We received a frank and straightforward appreciation of where the Park has come from and where it is going to save Rhinos, which the team appreciated immensely.
Kally Ubisi, Skukuza Section Ranger, joined us at Swatika for a night around the fire. Kally was a Trails Ranger for 16 years, before being promoted to Section Ranger. His calm and quiet demeanour, and affable nature, draws people to him. It did not take long for the team to listen to his every word as we were regaled with stories of a life in Kruger. We used the opportunity to hand over binoculars to the Field Ranger team under Kally, as well as a camouflaged bush hide for multi day patrols in the bush.
We were up and at it early the next morning and the excitement was building with our planned visit to the Rhino Orphans at Care for Wild. On the way there, we had great game viewing with a Leopard Female spotted by Eagle Eyes Marnus Schoeman. Marnus arranged that six players of the local Pumas Rugby Union, join us for the excursion. The centre specializes on Rhino orphan rescue, rehabilitation and release. The founder of the project, Petronel Niewoudt, exudes passion for what her and her team does daily. Here the exposure to the Rhino Management Plan, puts focus squarely on life and population expansion. Spending time with the orphans, while each one’s story is related by Petronel, is a life changing experience. Again it is amazing how the program at Care for Wild has developed and continues to improve with experience, like the rest of the departments of the Rhino Management Plan. How there is hope, with the release of some of the older orphans that now roam free on the sanctuary and are showing signs of social bonding and breeding. The intricacies and detail of the plan was discussed until late at night around the fire at Swatika.
Our last activity of the Lions Rhino Ambassador program, was to explore and experience the pristine wilderness of Kruger on foot. Only 1 percent of the Park is accessible via infrastructure created by man. Part of the aim was to let the rugby players feel how remote and vast the areas are that SANParks’ teams operate in, how hostile it can be and how successful they are on the ground, despite the challenges they face every day. The main goal though, was to see Rhinos in the Wild. We had fresh signs of both White and Black Rhino, and after following the tracks and finding fresh dung, Redbilled Oxpeckers flying out of the bush to our right confirmed their presence. There was a magnificent Cow, her Calf and a Big Bull in attendance. The swirling wind made our approach tricky and the Cow lifted her huge head, horn glistening in the morning sun. One could hear our walking group draw breath in appreciation of her beauty and defiant stance. This is how it should be, with Rhinos roaming in the wild, like they have for millennia.
Our gratitude goes out to Julian and Sumari Redelinghuys for coordinating the effort on behalf of the Union and to Jacques and Liza van Rooyen, Jaco Kriel, Marnus Schoeman and Andries Coetzee of the Lions Rugby Union for their willingness to give their time and become involved in saving our heritage. We look forward to a long and happy project.
To the eager and passionate Pumas Rugby Union represented by Dee-Jay Terblanche, Jerome Pretorius, Willie Engelbrecht, Nardus van der Walt, Abrie Griesel and Jeandre Rudolph, we are looking forward to building a relationship with you and hosting you in the Park shortly.
To every man and woman involved with the SANParks Rhino Management Plan, you are modern day heroes. You are not alone.