I have rewritten this piece so many times, but how do you make an anti poaching operation sound interesting and full of action? So I decided I am just going to tell it like it is. I hope that I can put across the dangers, boredom and thrill which an anti poaching operation is full of. The decision is yours…
After the fall of darkness we proceeded to pick up the National Parks scouts and headed into the Gorge after fish poachers and elephant poachers who make their way into the park at this crossing point. There are two main crossing points in the Sanyati Gorge which armed ivory poachers use as entry points.
Armed with thermal night vision and my video camera we sat quietly in the pitch black straining our ears for telltale sounds of rowing, or the bump of a boat or a hurried whisper.
It didn’t take long to spot the telltale white blobs of heat in a sea of darkness and amid much tension and excitement we fired the engine up in pursuit. Surprise and speed are the two integral components to affect a successful raid and in the night the anti poaching teams have the advantage. With looks of bewilderment and resignation on their faces the apprehension is made and they are in our boat headed for the Sanyati Parks offices.
Because of the day time harassment by anti poaching units these poachers have taken to working at night. In my opinion you have to be either brave or crazy to work at night on the lake in such flimsy boats as the poachers use. Little bark boats, barely clearing the waterline, laying and pulling in nets without being able to see two feet in front of you.
They make their way over the escarpment, down the sleep sides of the gorge with packs of food, nets and trade goods. Whilst we move along the Sanyati by boat during the day their fishing hideouts can be spotted, not only by the soot blackened rock overhangs but by the rancid smell of drying and salted fish. Their is normally a large amount of detritus left behind as a calling card telling of their presence.
I do empathise with them, though they treat other human life with utter disregard and do not show the same restraint as the anti poaching teams. They often roll boulders down the steep sides of the gorge in order to maim or kill pursuing units who have not wanted to fire weapons in case of hitting an innocent target through ricochet.
As soon as the boat touched the sides of the gorge I was after the units up an unbelievably steep gradient, using my hands and feet to claw my way upwards over sparse tufts of grass and loose scree while still trying to film and dodge falling stones and medium sized rocks.
I have a fear of heights, which only kicks in when I run out of hand holds and this was no exception. I was stuck and decided a breather was in order before falling in line with the column of people making their way back to the boat. Scrambling across a narrow ledge to an easier descent with my heart in my mouth I heard a shouted warning and managed to scramble out the way of a medium sized boulder before it shot past with millimetres to spare before it fell with a splash into the Sanyati 50 feet below.
Throughout the night we managed to surprise groups of poachers who had just made their way down the escarpment from their village (in some instances 50 kilometres away). However we didn’t manage to affect another arrest, though a deterrent in some cases is just as good.
The weather by three in the morning had also decided to turn against the operation forcing us to take cover on the bank behind some large boulders as the force of the river was becoming too dangerous. Taking cover under the edge of a smelly piece of black plastic my body ended up soaked, so as soon as the sun started filling the gorge with light we moved off to find more suitable cover.
Taking shelter in a tiny cave we decided the priorities of life were warmth, food and shelterand unfortunately I wasn’t responsible for the food or the cave I could contribute to the group by collecting firewood. The problem was there was a torrential storm in the gorge, so it wouldn’t have mattered if I had retrieved sticks from the river as it was all just as soaked.
Our resident MacGyver scraped the wet bark off and soon we had a good fire going. We used to call it soldier tv – as there is something about a fire which not only lifts the spirits of those sitting but is somewhat mesmerising. We sat eating ration packs and talking the kind of rubbish only acceptable in the bush while we dried our kit off and watching the ferocious storm only centimetres away.
As soon as the downpour abated we moved out and found to our dismay that we had attracted every fly in the gorge – and we were standing next to the poacher! We stank to high heaven – the rankness is hard to convey but the clothes actually felt uncomfortable. It almost felt like we could feel the millions of hatchlings crawling through the fabric of our shirts. I have only stank once like this and even now I still have the memory of the smell!
The last stop was to collect nets which had been laid overnight before we had disrupted their activities and then to drop our poacher at the Parks site for booking. While the wheels of bureaucracy turned we headed into the middle of the creek, enjoyed the sun and tucked into the final ration pack. Man it was good to be in the wilds of Africa. With my good mates and with the warm feeling of a successful night behind us.
My heart goes out to the poachers, but a job must be done. Although they are caught between a rock and a hard place, my job is not to feel sorry for them. As a human though, it gives me a lot to reflect upon. This operation had lasted 36 hours and we were gagging for a shower and rest before heading to Kariba for resupply.
Anti poaching is an emotive subject and talking about the obstacles one meets every day in Africa, whilst going up against the Chinese syndicates is nigh impossible we can disrupt the chain and hopefully to an extent that it takes too long to reorganise, allowing us to hit them again . All I can do is my part, a small cog in a wheel and hope it is enough before the last elephants are gone from the Matusadona mountain ranges.