On The Front Line

Swish, swish, swish… Swish, swish, swish… Everything is silent save for the rhythmic rustling of boots through the dry winter grasslands of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal. We’ve joined up with members of the state conservation authority’s crack anti-poaching unit for the day on a routine patrol through the bush. Marching silently in line with them we’re safely sandwiched in the middle of their customary crocodile, our hearts in our mouths, despite the fact Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s anti-poaching team is heavily armed,  has years of experience in the field and is playing a vital part towards the organisation’s claim that it is starting to get a grip on the current poaching problem.

Today it’s business as usual despite us tagging along.  It doesn’t matter that these guys have been up 24 hours already (it was a full moon last night, when the rhino poachers often choose to strike) because this unit is always on full alert and clearly has way more stamina than the disgruntled big, male buffalo our leading guy, Sibusiso Mdluli, has just spotted; immediately calling the patrol to a halt.

It’s a nervous moment for us, we’ve obviously interrupted the buffalo’s siesta and he’s looking angrily in our direction. But we’re in seasoned hands. Sibusiso motions us to keep quiet and stay stock still until he can gauge the buffalo’s intentions before calmly moving us away in a wide sweeping arc from any potential danger . Swish, swish, swish…

After a while we stop so the unit can set up an observation post in a dense thicket of  low shrubs. This gives us a chance to put some of our many questions to a team of men who  regularly place their lives on the line to protect Africa’s rhinos – crawling to within 20 metres of suspected poachers before identifying themselves. It appears the poachers constantly change their patterns of operation and the unit often has to camp out in the bush for more than a week at a time to stay ahead of the game.  ‘Do you need special equipment to keep up?’ we ask.  ‘What we need most is camping gear and particularly wet weather stuff because the poachers like to operate in wet weather conditions,’ says Sibusiso.

‘Aren’t you afraid when it comes to a shoot-out at close range in the bush with ruthless criminals?’  Mshiyeni Ntuli, who has served with the unit for five years now and who is a big football fan, is quick with a response. ‘No. I’m not scared,’ he says. ‘I just think of the pain I feel when I see what the poachers have done, when I see the rhino they killed. It is this pain I feel, but I don’t feel scared.’

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