I Fought African Militias to Protect Rhinos from Extinction


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I Fought African Militias to Protect Rhinos from Extinction

From the comfort of Sydney, I'd read how rhino horn was now worth more than gold or cocaine. That one fact transported me to African lion country, staking out poachers with an ancient rifle.

All photos by Rohan Nel/Wild and Free Foundation

I'm on my stomach in the dirt. Next to me, my team leader struggles to fix our jammed weapon—a relic of a bolt-action rifle. We drew the short straws and missed out on semi-automatics, so this ancient gun is the only defense we have against the men we are lying in wait for: poachers, likely armed with AK-47s.

We're out in the scrub of South Africa's lion territory, sheltered in the only cover we could find. To fight sleep we eat raw coffee by the handful. On paper, the plan was simple: I'm on the lookout for the vehicle of our fellow anti­-poaching rangers, who we've been warned may be on the poachers' payroll. If I spot any extra passengers, we'll "engage and extract the vehicle's occupants" while our team leader covers us. But his rifle is still inoperable.


We suddenly hear the truck. "Whistle if you see 'em," the team leader whispers to me. But there's no way I'm whistling. All we have is the element of surprise. I wrap some cord around my wrist and throw one end to him. Pulling it will be my signal. The vehicle is close and finally, after four failed attempts, a round chambers in the weapon. It's my signal that will initiate the ambush. Can I pull the cord?

It had been just two months since I'd joined the Protrack anti­-poaching unit. From the comfort of my home in Sydney, I'd read about how demand in Asia has seen the value of rhino horn outstrip that of gold or cocaine. It's predicted that within ten years poachers will entirely wipe out rhinos in South Africa.

Using my training from the Australian Army Reserve and the Sydney Metropolitan Wildlife Service was one incentive. But, to be honest, the idea of learning how to track armed men in the bush captured my imagination. More than my job as a bar manager.

From the outset, I was warned that Protrack wasn't an NGO. It's a very different animal, a military company that has become Africa's largest private anti-­poaching force. It's a world where animal rights activists fight alongside mercenaries and career soldiers in Africa's war against extinction.

I quit my job and began to feel nervous. I wondered whether I'd be able to handle the marathon patrols, the starvation, and the military structure. But these were the wrong questions. What I should have asked was simple: Can I pull the cord?


The anti­-poaching training was tough. Almost half of the recruits that applied didn't make it through. On my first day, they shaved my head and recorded my weight: 189 pounds. My trainer, Sergeant Zoro, told me this number would change. In his mid­ 50s, the sergeant was still a monster of a man—one of the first black majors in the South African army. Scars on his arm showed where he had cut out globs of white phosphorus along with a large portion of his own flesh ­in Angola.

And he was right: Survival training and food deprivation saw my weight drop to 152 pounds after only six weeks. In that time we'd learned weapons handling, close quarters combat, ambushing, vehicle extractions, crime-scene maintenance, and how to behave around Africa's predators—a lesson made only more relevant when we learned an anti­-poaching ranger was eaten by lions not long before I'd joined.

We also learned how to steal. Some CNN journalists who came to document our training discovered this the hard way. We raided their supplies while the more presentable recruits smiled for the cameras. But when your body is literally giving up on you from hunger, the lines blur.

Left to right: Blisters, living quarters, group punishment at night. Images by author

A month out of training, almost three months into my contract with Protrack, I find myself stationed on the Thornybush Game Reserve. My once skeletal frame is starting to resemble a living being again. I'm standing on the tray of a speeding ute as it chases the sound of a helicopter, which has disappeared over the horizon. It's carrying one of the region's top vets, tracking a rhino that's been shot during a failed poaching attempt.


This vet is known for his good aim, but he was mauled by an injured cheetah earlier in the day. His right arm is heavily bandaged, and he's refused painkillers to maintain his focus. Miraculously he makes the shot, and as the chopper lands, we start to track the rhino's footprints. The dosage of tranquilizer was massive, but she's managed to run a good distance before falling.

We find her with an exit wound the size of a dinner plate; the poachers have shot the rhino in the neck. Luckily it's a clean shot. The wound is a vision of festering raw meat. Left untreated, septicemia will claim her. I scan her body with a metal detector looking for bullet fragments.

Weighing time over tenderness, the vet quickly plugs the gaping hole with cotton wool and stitches the skin using what looks like tradesman's wire. He strains like a truck driver securing a heavy load with ropes, pulling the rhino's tough skin together. Halfway through the operation, the vet warns we need to shift the rhino's weight. Have you ever slept on your arm after a big night? Add a couple of tons, and you can easily paralyze a limb—a death sentence in the bush.

It takes six men, digging in with their feet and pushing. She's so heavy we have to rock her back-and-forth to build up momentum. One ranger slips and the weight of the animal falls back down, pinning his foot underneath. We count to three and heave together to release him, as the vet finishes the final stitches. An injection is administered to counteract the sedatives, and she's on her feet again, grumpy but alive. She's safe from infection, but still threatened by poachers who we know will return.


Moments like this made all the hunger and pain feel worthwhile. But when Protrack says it isn't an NGO, it isn't kidding. I thought I understood this back in Sydney, but the reality of this is not understood until I find myself lying in the dirt, with a piece of string determining if I engage men with just a knife.

So can I pull the chord?

I never get a chance to answer this. The vehicle passes us by, and there are only rangers onboard—no poachers. Intelligence will later suggest they'd been tipped off that we were observing them. I was disappointed. I went to Africa to be tested, and I'd missed my chance. But now, with some time between me and that night lying in the dirt in the middle of lion country, I see how lucky I was.

Wisani Baloyi, a ranger who trained on the course just before me, never got his chance either. But not because it passed him by. It was taken from him while on patrol. He was ambushed by seven poachers last month, shot through the femoral artery. It took just three minutes for him to bleed out. Using military tactics, the poachers waited for him to enter the kill­ zone before they struck without warning, ending his life. He was 20 years old.

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