A Close Encounter

It is not all doom and gloom up there. The beauty of the bush is something worth protecting. So in contrast to my previous post, here is something to lighten the mood.

A few days ago one of the landowners, having had multiple poaching incidents, asked for extra assistance from the task force team. Chrisjan and a new scout went out to his reserve to evaluate the statistics of the previous few incidents, looking for patterns and finding the best place to set up their ambush.

They came back just before sunset, prepped and kitted, and took up their position. Now in the full moon faze it can be a little challenging to be inconspicuous. Your every movement is amplified by the shadow the moon casts, jeopardising your hide out. So keeping still is essential.

Not to long into the night they heard foot steps. But these were not just any foot steps. They were heavy and slow in tempo, like a giant walking and pausing to pick mushrooms. Chrisjan immediately identified them as belonging to the very animal they were here to protect, rhino’s. Being his first ambush in a big five reserve, the scout was getting a little nervous. Chrisjan ordered him to relax and sit tight. There was nothing they could do because if they move, they risk blowing their cover. The rhino’s will move on eventually.

So they sat tight and listened to the night. Over the years, Chrisjan has been in contact with rhino’s in many different situations and in many different environments. But this was the first time he actually heard that sound they make when they socialise at night. It’s a high pitched clicking, almost squeaking sound that can only be compared with the sound a dolphin makes. What an odd notion.

They sat there listening to what sounded like a calf playing with its mother. It was a welcome change from all the death of the last few days. But Chrisjan’s moment of appreciation was tinged by a stain of sadness. These majestic creatures were blissfully unaware of the targets they have on their backs. This thought blew on that simmering coal in his chest to ignite it into flames once again. Determination and focus filled him as what he was fighting for was made clear to him once again.

He suddenly became aware that the rhino’s had moved towards them instead of away. Too close. He informed the scout that they should slowly get up and back away. As they lift up from their stomachs, the bush opens up and a looming silhouette about 8 meters away blinds him to the details around him. So he quickly informed the scout to stay still and make no movement. They were way too close to take any form of action.

But when faced with such a creature, ones instincts tend too take over. So with no further thought, the scout turned tail and ran. The startled rhino gave a few steps mock charge in Chrisjan’s direction, who quickly ducked behind the nearest tree. Heart racing, he just stood there for a while, allowing the rhino to get accustomed to his presence as a non-threatening one. When the rhino was comfortable enough to turn his back on him, Chrisjan slowly backed away until out of sight.

Finding the scout standing on the road by the fence, Chrisjan told him that he will get them both killed if he ever did that again. The scout apologised but in his defence, reality and training are two different things. In his hurried escape the scout had dropped the radio, so he was made to leopard crawl back and fetch it.

They waited for the rhino’s to move on before resuming their position. Luckily it had otherwise been an uneventful night on the reserve and no rhino’s were lost that night. It was a much needed good night.

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A Poachers Moon

Where once I stared up at the full moon with wonder and appreciation, I now feel differently. The full moon faze is known in the bush as the poachers moon. The brightness of the moon makes it easier for poachers to make their way through the bush without the risk of using artificial light.

Now I look at the moon and I feel fear and sadness for what I know is happening. But I still have a definite appreciation for those out there every night, protecting the animals.

But it is not an easy fight. On the first day Chrisjan reported back to the head office. But he was swept away immediately to assist in the autopsy of a poached white rhino. It had been a fairly big bull of about 20-25 years who’s horn was removed cleanly and professionally. The full moon faze has started and all hands were on deck.

Not two days later they were called in from the field for another white rhino autopsy and were barely finished with that one when alerted of another. The second one had been lying for about 6-7 days and it was one of the most gruesome autopsy’s done yet. Maggots spilled from her and the heat that came off her rotting flesh made even the most experienced of men gag. Both of their horns had been removed in a similar fashion to the first.

Every rhino lost is a sadness but on day five the weight of the loss was even heavier. They had been called out to a reserve for an autopsy of a black rhino cow. Now understand that there are only about 5 000 black rhino’s left in the world compared to the 20 000 white rhino’s left. And all these numbers are declining rapidly.

The greatness of the loss of this cow was clear on the face of the land owner. She had been his prize cow with a beautiful calm nature towards all that set foot on his reserve.

Her horn had been carelessly hacked off, indicating inexperienced poachers. As they were busy with her autopsy, another one was discovered a mere 50m away. It had been the prize cow’s sub-adult calf of about 3 years old. Blood spatters on her flank indicates that she had been next her mother when she was shot but tried to make a run for it. She had not gotten far when she was shot down and her horn hacked off. Unfortunately she had not been killed immediately by the shot and was still conscious and struggling while they were hacking off her tiny horn, in the process taking off half of her face. This was indicated by the deep cuts in her back as they hit her with the panga in an attempt to sever her spine and stop her squirming, not wanting to risk another bullet.

One would have thought that would have been enough destruction for one day, yet the autopsy of the mother cow revealed that she had been pregnant with another fully developed female calf who died in her womb.

Three female black rhino’s lost in one strike, three potential contributors to restoring a fading species. A grave loss indeed that was felt by everyone that day.

This is what they are fighting against. Feel free to join the fight.

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