The Big 4, Protecting the 5th: a blog by Dwaine Ndjaronguru(a member of the Statesmen Initiative)
On the way to Naankuse I was probably more confused than I’d ever been in my life: The uncertainty of what was going to happen. Not a lot of what was going to happen was shared with us before the excursion.
Still not grasping the magnitude of what we were about to embark on, we were met by two very serious, camouflaged, bullet-proof gear wearing, gun-slinging gentlemen. We had a brief introduction cloaked with a tone of seriousness. Then it hit me: we are not here for games but here to understand that “ANTI POACHING”, is no game.
We were shown our living quarters for the evening and given 30 minutes to unpack our stuff and choose what we would need for the 3 nights. Afterwards we were briefed on what we could expect and the dangers we would be facing in the bush. Slowly but surely my nerves increased…later that evening we discussed amongst ourselves what we were in for, with a lioness calling for her cubs in the background as the sun set, on what would be the first night of a life-changing event.
Not being able to sleep, I expected the NAPU to show up at any time. Four-wheelers patrolling at night did not help as I tried to calm my nerves. The rangers woke us up and gave us 30 minutes to get ourselves ready and report for our deployment briefing.
We were split into two teams: Team Alpha and Team Bravo – each consisting of 2 youth, and 2 rangers. Assignments were given and now it was time to go be protectors! The sun rose above the wall of a dam and we spotted one of the magnificent rhinos we were protecting with her calf. It was majestic. At that moment I realised this is what it’s all about, this is what we were here for.
We were dropped off at our first location. It was time to move through the bush, with no camps in the reserve, it’s all free roaming: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, Oryx, wildebeest and the creepy ones (snakes, scorpions and everything the bush has to offer), and also the dangers of having to encounter possible poachers!
My senses exploded as our walk started. Looking back and forth, left and right, staying hidden between the tress and bush…. I told myself; at least you have two qualified rangers to protect you! The backpack becoming heavier with each passing kilometre, I was met with the silence of the bush.
We finally reached our resting observation point and set up camp for the day – this was going to be our shelter for the night: No fire, no tents, no luxury chalets. Just our sleeping bags for cover that night. We built a shelter with bush and thorn trees: “The Bushmen Hide”, they called it. Our shifts started and instructions to observe and report any strange activities were quietly passed.
Then came the radio call… “Potential poacher tracks spotted by Alpha Team.” At this moment my heart started to race, we were going to track poachers! This was such a serious moment… we waited anxiously for further feedback.
We got our call. “Get ready, we need your assistance.” We drove through the bush, jumped off the vehicle and set up an ambush: Lyrischia and myself, each with an assigned ranger tracking through the bush and waiting on these poachers whilst all kinds of thoughts run through my mind: “Did they already poach? What weapons are they carrying? Why don’t I have a gun? Is this really happening?”
We find their water, so it looks like they are on their way back for supplies. The waiting game begins and we set up our ambush. An hour passes and Alpha Team show up with San trackers. “Did we miss them, or they are still somewhere on the reserve?” The San trackers start tracking their spoor and suddenly we find the two poachers hiding in the reeds!
The most intense and exciting experience of my life to date…The Head Ranger informs us afterward that this was a simulation exercise! We were to ponder on what just occurred whilst walking back to our observation stations. The day goes by slowly as the calm sets in, only for a moment. We prepare our first meal and fall asleep as the rangers take first watch. We wait for the first stars to appear as we reflect on the day, discussions on the potential danger we are going to face at night and our life stories.
We survived our first night in the bush. I experience a great relief and my confidence builds as I get to know my surroundings. We walk 4 km to our next observation station.
Setting up camp has become easier… knowing what to do, when to do it and how to do it. Radio checks are done, hours later a situation report is sent through and the discussions of our experience starts. Planes take off and land, the birds chirp as we now blend in with nature: One with our thoughts.
I was observing the fence and the dirt road and it hits me: there is something about protecting our precious animals that at times cannot defend themselves against humans. Living in the bush, literally putting our lives on hold is the ultimate sacrifice.
As the day draws to an end we play our little game of counting stars and sharing our life stories and wait for morning. Dawn breaks, and we are up and ready to go home.