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  • Writer's pictureZuri D Burns

Lives on the Line - Rhinos, Poachers and Protectors

We all hear about the crisis of rhino poaching but what is it really like on the ground?

“Wakeup! You’re waiting for someone else to step into the ring. Come fight the fight,” is the message that Marc McDonald (Conservationist and Founder of International Coalition of Rhino Protection), thinks the world needs to hear. 1028 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2017 alone! The recent death of “Sudan”, the last male Northern White Rhino, captured world attention for a moment, but some people have rhinos on their minds every single day.

ICORP's counter poaching team stands at attention under the command of Marc McDonald

We speed along the winding dusty track that leads to ICORP’s main base. I stand in the bed of the truck, wind whipping my hair back. The setting sun casts a golden light over the scrubland. We stop in a clearing to watch a large herd of buffalo and wildebeest grazing peacefully. Something about the African bush makes me feel intensely alive. I think that’s what so many people fall in love with and can’t ever get out of their system. Beneath this serene idyllic surface however, serious things are happening– lives are on the line. I’m spending the night and morning patrol with ICORP’s Counter Poaching Unit (CPU), which operates on an 8000ha private reserve in Mozambique.

Mozambique endured 16 years of civil war (1976 -1992) devastating its inhabitants and wildlife. The rhinos on the private reserve were gone before the CPU was installed, but heavily armed poachers use this corridor as a backdoor entrance over the border into Kruger National Park (KNP). Kruger remains a critical rhino stronghold within South Africa (home to over ¾ of the existing wild rhino population). A report in 2014 indicated that experts estimate Mozambicans poach 80% of the rhinos killed in Kruger. The city of Massingir, close to ICORP’s location along the Western border of Mozambique, is renowned as a poaching hotspot. Fancy mansions and huge shiny trucks starkly contrast the surrounding poverty thanks to wealth trickling in from illegal activities. The kingpins hold all the cards and power. They are the links between the people on the ground doing the dirty work and horn buyers. Within 48 - 78 hours after a rhino is down, its horn reaches its destination. Vietnam and other Asian countries use the horn for traditional medicine or as a status symbol and drive the demand, but the trade is possible thanks to corruption that transcends international boarders. Despite the appeal of this lucrative poaching economy, it is riddled with risk. Many young men return to their families in caskets. During my visit, 2 poachers were shot in Kruger. One of the men came from a neighboring community. The whole village is mourning the loss of a community member: father; husband; son. Days later, lions kill another poacher near KNP.

The poachers however, aren’t the only ones risking their lives. The men of ICORP (6 are present during my visit) are united through a powerful cause – saving Africa’s wildlife – and they may just have to rely on each other to survive. Marc drops me off at his unit’s basecamp. As soon as my tent is pitched, a heaped plate of simple but surprisingly delicious rice and beans is served up and we sit down to fuel and talk. Conversation switches between English, Tsonga, Portuguese and Afrikaans. Luckily Robert is able to translate for me. He was born in Mozambique and walked over the border through KNP with his family as a young boy to escape the civil war. It is estimated that around 1 million Mozambicans were killed in the war. Those who tried to escape risked death at the hands of lions or other wild animals in Kruger. Robert attended Wildlife College in South Africa and explains that they were taught “the importance of animals and not to kill them”. He is now again in his birth country, Mozambique, protecting those animals. Sergeant Tomas (currently on leave) and Sergeant Lino come from opposing sides of Mozambique’s civil war yet now they are on the same side - for wildlife. Lino says he was in the military for 17 years, where he gained his bush and combat skills. He worked as a security officer for 10 years in the capital Maputo before finding his way into ICORP’s CPU. Zane is South African and has an extensive background in CrossFit and MMA. He thought about joining the military but couldn’t align himself with what he would be fighting for, whereas he could stand behind counter poaching. He’s now on his fourth tour with ICORP. James is the newest recruit. Komsarr, a local guy, is one of the best trackers the team has had. Twenty-one year-old Joe is the youngest member. After watching the documentary “Virunga” he decided he wanted to become a wildlife ranger. Joe left London for the African bush, taking two grueling intensive ranger-training programs. Now he is volunteering with ICORP to gain practical experience.

It’s getting late and we head to our tents. I lay awake listening to the sounds of the night. I hear many insects and perhaps a bird call. Even during rest danger could be present. Last week they had 3 venomous snakes in camp!

My alarm sounds at 4:30am. It’s still dark. I grab a cup of tea. Marc arrives and we jump into the back of his truck. Whenever a tree branch drapes over the road we have to duck fast! We jump off and walk the fence lines. A few nights ago the footprints of two men left their mark and we are checking for any fresh spoor. Even when we are in the vehicle the guys are reading every sign of the bush. They’re good. Doglike prints are seen but quickly written off as a jackal not hunting dogs. The men on this CPU team have to be 100% aware all of the time. It’s not only the poachers that pose a risk but also the very wildlife they are protecting – a lion, a buffalo, a black mamba, any could spell the end. Most of them don’t carry firearms due to governmental regulation, so they rely on their skill, wit and teamwork. Their execution must be “sharp like a knife” Marc says.

Strategizing a plan while checking the integrity of the fence lines

Eventually we move onto the section of the reserve frequented by rhino and elephant poachers. Unlike the typical intruders who enter the reserve armed with only machetes and dogs, the large game poachers carry the big guns (AK-47s; .458 or 375 caliber rifles) and high price tags on their mission. This morning all seems calm, no firearms to be seen…

We drill a mock ambush. I shadow Zane. When I crouch behind him I realize I am caught on a big and incredibly spiky acacia branch. It is sticking my legs together making it hard for me to stand up. I am relieved this is a mock scenario. I realize how careful and skilled these men are, and that right now I am a security liability.

Marc McDonald maintains high standards in his team. He served 4 years in the military during the Southwest-African-Angolan war. The military exposed him to being in the environment and taught him combat skills, but his mom and dad brought him to Kruger Park as a young boy. “That was the seed that was planted and it germinated”. Having an inquisitive mind, Marc started searching for answers on how ecosystems function. When he finished the military he bought himself a Land Rover and a 375 Holland & Holland and started hiking trails in Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana. It was there he realized that conservation was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He was, however, battling with work permit paperwork in Botswana. After crossing the riverbed several times to avoid authorities he decided it was time to head back to South Africa.

Marc McDonald with the CPU's newest recruit: James

Following his young rebel days, Marc studied extensively and settled into a long career working for KNP as well as several other reserves. During this period he developed bush interpretation courses for rangers, and worked as a project manager. Among other things, he instigated walking safaris. These remain a favorite with guests to this day.

In 2005, wanting a change, Marc left Kruger and worked on Makuleke Tribal Land (20,000 ha) specializing in birding and botany. It was in this period that a new mission started taking shape “ I could see that this wonderful Eden was under threat” Marc says. Habitat fragmentation and poaching were leading to shrinking islands of wildlife.

In 2008, Marc relocated to Sabie Game Park where he became a park warden focusing on anti-poaching, reserve management and community liaison. The stakes were rising. While he was sleeping a gang took revenge after a poacher had died in a firefight. His home was attacked. After several direct attempts on his life, Marc realized the risk was greater than the satisfaction. His CPU team urged him to leave. He moved to Australia. Feeling he had left his men behind Marc continued to try to balance life in Australia with trips to Africa. ICORP was officially formed in 2011. In 2013 Marc made the decision to return to Africa.

What makes Marc ready to put his life on the line every day? His men. “I was sitting in an air conditioned house living in luxury while the men were eating Mopani worms and sweating in the heat. As founder of an organization, if you’re serious you need to have your feet on the ground”. This challenging decision cost Marc his second marriage and he had to leave his son behind. “My family knows I’ve committed myself to wildlife protection. I fully understand it’s not for everyone but I do it to improve the lives of people and wildlife. How sad would it be not to see large savannas?” He tells me the work is not easy and he has made some mistakes but he is kept humble and has had huge successes arresting kingpins, confiscating firearms and protecting wildlife.

ICORP began in a tented camp on the reserve where it operates today, but they are hoping to become more permanent and grow. They have offices in 3 nations, and are “Going from strength to strength” says Marc.

Always ready. Patrol supplies and Joe at a temporary campsite.

ICORP fits in as a piece of a bigger network of protected areas comprising the Greater Lebombo Conservancy. There are only 4 groups of CPU covering 200,000ha. ICORP wants to expand. “We need 12 people right now but I can only pay 4 so we depend on ex-veteran volunteers”.

“It’s about making sure that we don’t loose flagship species of Africa”, says Marc.

Poaching in South Africa escalated from claiming 13 rhinos in 2007 to 1028 in 2017. A paper published in 2013 warned that rhinos may be extinct in the wild within 20 years if poaching continues to accelerate. Currently the IUCN lists the black rhino (Diseros bicornis) as critically endangered and the Southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum spp. simum) as nearly threatened. With the recent death of “Sudan,” the threat of extinction feels very real. According to Marc the figures don’t account for unborn calves.

A southern white rhino female - one of the species ICORP is protecting

Rhinos aren’t the only species suffering. Days after my departure from Mozambique a beautiful bull elephant we watched browsing is poached just outside the reserve’s fence line. We have to show the community that this doesn’t pay in the long-term” Marc says. Rhino horn attained a shocking value of $65,000 per kilogram in 2012. Is it worth the life of a rhino, an elephant, of a human being? ICORP is committed to working with the local community through engaging local leaders and the population to facilitate a transition from poaching to a sustainable tourism based economy.

While this is a crisis, not everyone can “come fight the fight,” so what can people do from outside? Marc says supporting conservation organizations is critical. He also raises the call to action for conservation on a global scale. Marc laments how people get hung up on the small details while we are losing our wilderness spaces and iconic species of whales, dolphins, rhinos, tigers, etc.

“People have to step up. What in your community do you want to save? We have to become strong”.

It’s time to wake up!


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