Walking single file through the African bush, my eyes dance rapidly between scanning the immediate brushy landscape and the placement of my feet as I follow the armed ranger ahead of me. Within minutes, my eyes latch onto two hulking forms, one on each side of us. Moments later, the hulking forms identities become clear – two female white rhinoceroses, each with a young calf! These prehistoric-looking beasts graze calmly and peacefully as we look on, seemingly unconcerned about our presence.
We were escorted here by Zambia’s Rhino Anti-poaching Unit, an elite team who lives 24/7 with, and protects, Zambia’s last remaining white rhinos. The officer in charge, an older gentleman with a broad smile and no taller than the height of my chest, explains to us that poaching wiped out Zambia’s rhinos. The rhinos we are seeing today were recently introduced from South Africa in an attempt to bring this once common animal back to Zambia. He informs us that the rangers work in shifts and guard the rhinos day and night from poachers. When they encounter poachers, he continues, they shoot to disable, rather than kill. He told us Asian criminals hire local people in an attempt to acquire rhino horns for market in Vietnam and China.
Days later, we’re stopped, waiting for the herds of elephants surrounding our safari vehicle to move on. While taking in the gorgeous views of Botswana’s Linyanti River, filled with waterbuck, hippo, Cape buffalo and red lechwe, we hear the thump-thump-thump of an approaching helicopter. Soon, the small helicopter is in sight, and we can feel its turbulence vibrating through us. Botswana’s Anti-poaching Unit is looking for poachers on the Namibia border, says our Motswana guide, Emmanuel, who was a member of the Anti-poaching Unit for eight years. Previously, we had seen one of the Anti-poaching Unit out-post camps and passed a vehicle filled with Anti-poaching Unit officers in route to their foot-patrol duties. I’ve read about Botswana’s elite Anti-poaching Unit, but now, after only a few days in the Botswana wilderness, it’s clear to me they have a commanding “bush” presence in their quest to protect the Batswana peoples’ natural heritage.
Started in the late 1980s, Botswana’s Anti-poaching Unit is credited with largely eliminating megafauna poaching in northern Botswana and facilitating a “calming” bush presence that has blossomed into a thriving eco-tourism industry. Botswana’s current shoot-to-kill policy against poachers, although controversial, has proven to be an effective poaching deterrent. In an interesting white paper titled “Live by the gun, die by the gun. Botswana’s ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy as an anti-poaching strategy,” authors Goemeone EJ Mogomotsi and Patricia Kefilwe Madigele argue in support of the policy, and state they believe the government of Botswana considers poaching an act of war.
Looking past the political/moral implications of these two countries anti-poaching approaches, and focusing on the men and women working on the front lines, protecting Africa’s (our earth’s) biodiversity, I couldn’t help but feel a strong kinship towards them. Based on those I was able to talk to during our African visit, it’s clear their passion, commitment, love for country and environment, gives them the strength to overcome the dangers of living in the bush, and the more dangerous challenges of fighting organized crime. I’ll quote (loosely) our guide Emmanuel. “They are my brothers (and sisters) from other mothers!”
Let’s hope and pray that the folks who desire ivory trinkets, social status symbols, hang-over remedies, mythical medicinal potions and aphrodisiacs will find a change of heart, and this madness will end!