Wildlife Warzone

South Africa’s war on poaching

In the battle between rangers and wildlife poachers humans and animals are suffering, with casualties on both sides.

Wildlife poaching is big business and rhino horn worth more than gold. The only thing standing between South Africa’s animals and possible extinction is a new breed of anti-poaching rangers. They come from a wide range of backgrounds, but they have one thing in common – they are prepared to lay their lives on the line for Africa’s wildlife.

Editor’s note: This series was originally broadcast in 2013. 

By filmmaker Mark Strickson

Wildlife Warzone – the series title says a lot. There really is a ‘war’ going on South Africa between rangers and wildlife poachers. Both humans and animals are suffering, with many casualties on either side.

I have a wife and young son, so you can imagine my (and my wife’s) feelings as I left for the shoot. When I arrived at our main base, Hoedspruit in the north of South Africa, the first thing I had to do was go shopping for supplies. It is slightly worrying when you find yourself buying tomatoes next to a guy who is also shopping, but has a loaded, semi-automatic rifle on his back. There are far too many guns in South Africa.

On a more positive note, we found everybody we worked with to be extremely helpful. People really wanted to help get the message out that wildlife is in trouble from poaching. They also wanted to show the world that they are trying to do something to change that situation.

One of the special things about filming is you get to see a country and its people very differently to a tourist. From poor townships to luxury game lodges, we always received a warm welcome.

We filmed the series in two areas; the Shamwari Wildlife reserve and the Wildlife Reserves bordering the Kruger National Park. 

Shamwari is in the southern part of the country, on the Eastern Cape. It is a game reserve catering to wealthy guests. Two of our trainees eventually graduated from the course to become rangers there. They are now ‘living the dream’. It is a lovely place and an important conservation centre for both native animals and native plants.

The Wildlife Reserves bordering the Kruger National Park in the north of South Africa cover a vast area. Four of our trainees joined anti-poaching patrols in this part of the country. Rhinos are being poached there daily. As well as facing heavily armed poachers they must also deal with other dangers. The rangers patrol on foot and two have been killed by lions in recent times.

Perhaps because of the dangers, the rangers form strong bonds with each other. Their teammates become another ‘family’. They know they can afford no weak links in the team. Just as it would be on the frontline of any war, they must rely on each other to stay alive.

So, are the rangers making a difference? I believe they are, despite the fact that, so far this year, more rhinos have been killed than ever before. The reasons for this are twofold:

1. Demand from Asia, where rhino horn is thought to be a cure for cancer, among other things, drives the trade. This is despite the fact that rhino horn has no more medicinal properties than human fingernails. We need to get this message out and, in the process, help stop demand for wildlife products.

2. There is desperate poverty and unemployment in both South Africa and neighbouring Mozambique. Poaching one rhino horn can change a family’s life for the better forever. As one local poacher explained: “I don’t bear a grudge against the rangers. We’re all just trying to do the best for our family. If I was offered a job as a ranger, I wouldn’t have to poach.” But, the fact is that there just are not enough jobs to go around.

One of the most interesting things we discovered during filming is that most poor people – white, black or coloured – have never seen wildlife. Almost all land is locked up behind fences. To enter a reserve you must pay an entry fee, and few local people can afford this. It was amazing to see our trainee rangers take their first bush walk and, for the first time, see lions, giraffes, rhinos and hippos.

How can we expect people to care about wildlife if they never see it?

I will finish with a story that does not feature in the series, but which brought things home to me. We were present when a rhino was sedated to have its horn removed.

‘Dehorning’ makes the rhino less of a target for poachers and the horn grows back naturally over a few years. A local school was invited to come and watch. When the rhino was lying on the ground, the children were invited to touch it. One little boy was amazed.”It breathes, just like me,” he said.

Now he will understand that animals are not so different to humans. They feel happiness and pain in much the same way. So maybe he will grow up to care about them and be less likely to become a poacher.