After spending a week or two in the African bush, you have an enhanced awareness of your environment, an elevated sense of smell, and extra sensitive hearing. After spending three weeks, you are completely worn out. Anti-poaching units that protect the world's remaining rhinos often spend 20 to 25 days at a time in the bush, return briefly to restock their supplies, then head back out, year-round.
Anti-poachers are skillful, dedicated individuals who physically protect rhinos. They sacrifice their time and comfort, as well as risk their safety to do so. Tracking is difficult work, especially when the person you are tracking has grown up in the bush and has no qualms about shooting you.
Anti-poachers frequently work in tracker teams of five, and will carry all of their equipment for their month or so in the bush. When they find a hot trail, they camouflage their equipment in thickets, and will follow the trail until they catch up with whomever they are tracking, or they lose the tracks. They often work all night, lying in ambush, and will spend their days looking for snares, poaching camps, or field butcheries. They regularly spend 24 hours or more lying down in the bush at an especially good observation point, just waiting, often unsuccessfully. Food rations are tight, and meat is a huge luxury. Even in the bitter night cold of winter, they cannot make fires, as it would draw attention to them, making them useless, or worse, a target.
I had the opportunity to spend one night on a modified anti-poaching watch in the bush during the winter in South Africa with fellow interns. We deviated from what a real anti-poaching unit would do and built a fire to warm our chilled hands and our canned beans, which we ate using crudely carved sticks. We boiled water taken from a stream and picked leaves to make tea. We posted ourselves at the top of a hill during the night, and took turns staying awake to look for unwelcome headlights. We huddled by the fire for the rest of the night, rotating who stayed awake, on watch, to keep an eye out for elephants or lions. It was freezing, and scary not to know what could be lurking around us in the pitch black. At 4 a.m., before sunrise, we packed up and continued driving around the reserve, using our presence as a deterrent for poachers. There was frost on our eyelashes and we were exhausted from a lack of sleep. We couldn't imagine continuing for another three plus weeks.
This experience gave me the utmost respect for what anti-poachers do to protect rhinos. It also made me acknowledge that I don't have the skills to physically protect our rhinos. I lack the amazing tracking abilities that these people have, and I would be no help in the bush, no real threat to poachers. But I can help by writing and raising awareness, by raising funds for much-needed equipment for the dedicated and talented anti-poachers. And you can help too, from wherever you are, by spreading awareness and contributing. We can make a difference for the anti-poachers, which will make a difference for rhinos.