My counter poaching camp experience in Africa
The sun is breaking over the horizon, a saffron glow engulfs the treetops. The view is beyond spectacular and you could be mistaken that all is calm with the sunrise’s friendly embrace.
Things are not as they appear though. The air holds a sense of unease. A tension that is hard to place. For this place is not entirely safe. Not for me, nor the wildlife, and I worry what the morning light will show from the evening’s activities.
I am in Limpopo National Park, a 1.2 million hectare area of bush in Mozambique that borders Kruger Nation Park and stretches as far North as the Zimbabwe border. Sat in the camp of the Dyck Advisory Group Conservation Trust, I am here for the week to gain an understanding of what this counter poaching team engages in on a daily basis.
The Dyck Advisory Group Conservation Trust (DAGCT) carries out conservation and wildlife protection through its counter-poaching involvement and operations on the ground. The unit prides itself by operating on the front line and in many cases behind enemy lines to neutralise poaching activity and ensure the safety of today’s endangered and targeted wildlife.
You would expect a full-blown team of grown men to tackle such a massive task, however I am overwhelmed to discover it is a small group of young men, some as young as 21 years old, dedicating their lives to the cause. I think to myself what a massive responsibility these young men have, and I am in awe of their professionalism, passion and comradery.
Being a non-profit organisation, DAGCT rely on these men to go above and beyond to get the job done, with funding and donations from sponsors. There are just three DAGCT managers and one chopper pilot in camp. They are responsible for some 100 trackers, a majority of which are local Mozambicans.
This tight-knit group focus on the Intensive Protective Zone which only equates to about 30 percent of the total area. This is where most of the action happens, so they concentrate most of their resources to where threats are greater, and wildlife is more abundant. With more funding the group hopes to extend this region to cover more of the area.
Before arriving in camp, I felt I was somewhat prepared for what I was to experience. I had been in contact with Henk, one of the other DAGCT managers whom was absent on my visit, for nearly eight months prior via whatsaap messages. He gave me an eye-opening insight into life in camp and the work they did. It was that communication that ignited the fire within me to get involved, from some 11,500kms away in Australia.
It was quite surreal to be sat in the very place I had seen so many photos of and heard so many stories about. The camp was exactly as I imagined. Tents are set up, makeshift but somewhat secured long term. There was a sense of home here, everything had its place.
My morning started spending some time with Sean Van Nierkerk, the head of Operations in camp. At a young 28 years of age, the leadership and responsibly he emits astounds me. I hang off every word he tells me. Over a coffee at the fire, Sean divulges, after completing his Bachelor of Commerce Degree at the University of Pretoria, he followed his passion for conservation by becoming a qualified Field Ranger and Ranger Trainer. After a few years guiding in Mozambique and South Africa, Sean now focuses his efforts towards conservation in Mozambique carrying out counter-poaching operations for Dyck Advisory Group Conservation Trust.
He has a charismatic charm to him, but you can see in his eyes a story that goes much deeper. A burden that I feel, only the few members of the team truly know. It wasn’t long before those other team members arrived around us and I felt the sense of team engulf me. There were inside jokes, playful banter and I longed to be a part of it.
Mornings begin with patrols. Teams of three or more trackers are dropped off at various locations within the detection zone. Sometimes they are gone for the day, other times requires a more extended patrol of three to four days at a time. A high-density patrol could mean the trackers and rangers are in the bush for over a week, unassisted, carrying their own equipment and living rough in the bush.
Armed with shotguns, AKA 47s or Dashprods, these trackers and rangers mean business. They go searching for or following pre-recorded tracks of suspected poachers. These tracks most commonly run from the local communities in the reserve to the border and across into Kruger National Park.
They are on mission greater than just finding the poachers that target the larger wildlife like rhino. They are also fighting to eliminate the all too common problem of poaching bushmeat. Trapping devices called snares, usually consisting of a noose (made from wire), are used to captured animals for food and even hides. These death traps do not discriminate, so more often than not, they captured more than was intended. The removal of these snares is part of everyday life for the team, in addition to capturing those who set them.
A team of trackers pile into the back of the Landcruiser and we drove off into the bush. The terrain is hard going, ranging from dense bush to rocky loose gravel makeshift roads. Intel from the previous days dictated the drop zone. The team offloaded, had a quick chat about their mission for the day and checked their guns, chambered a round, before walking off into the bush.
Driving back to the main camp I felt worried for them. What would they come across? Would it be poachers where they are faced with contact? Would they stumble across a carcass of a poached animal? I couldn’t help but think what a brutal world they are living day in and day out. Suddenly a giraffe’s head appeared through the bush and curiously glanced at us as we drove past. It snapped me out of my sombre thoughts and the reality of what the fight is all about hit me. To see a wild animal doing its thing without fear of human threats truly is the most blissful thing.
Back at camp, I spend some time in the Forward Operating Base tent with the Colonel. Colonel Lionel Dyck (aka the Colonel) heads up the DAGCT. After decades of commanding and controlling military, security, explosive disposal, humanitarian and conservation operations and organisations around the world, Col. Dyck created the non-profit organisation Dyck Advisory Group Conservation Trust, to help combat the rapid decline of wildlife throughout Southern Africa by illegal poaching. Col. Dyck identified the massive, crucial and immediate need for successful counter poaching operations in highly dense and threatened wildlife areas.
From what I gathered; the man was the stuff of legends. Not the type that stand up and wave a flag declaring his victories but has a reputation built from the spoken words and stories amongst those who work under him. I was expecting a hard man that was to be feared if you put a foot out of place. I experienced none of that. He was passionate, kind and caring, even if he didn’t want to depict that. The team respected him, and I saw a kind of father figure in him amongst these young men.
I felt honoured to be in the presence of such an incredible man, as we discussed the role of DAGCT in the area, past stories from his experiences and future plans. I was keen to be involved help where I could. I took the private moment to deliver some of the much-needed gear I had collected for the team. To my delight, he welcomed the bag of equipment, including headlamps, car dash cams, cameras, binoculars and more. I felt in a small way I was contributing to the cause.
By late afternoon I took to the air in the helicopter to see an aerial view of the camp and the area being protected. Within moments of being in the air I was taken back by the landscape below me. To begin with, dense bush continued for miles below me before we traversed across a valley where a river flowed below me. Leaning out of the open helicopter I saw hippo’s heads bob under the water, massive crocodiles scurry off into the water and elephants drinking at the waters edge.
Werner, the helicopter pilot, was cool and in control as we weaved along the river’s twists and turns. Banking to the right, the cliff faces of the gorge rose beside me as we flew lower to the ground. My adrenalin was pumping. Rising in altitude, the setting sun filtered across the land and I lost my breath. My imagination could never have dreamt up such a sight. I extended my arm out into the wind and felt the suns warmth on my fingers cooled by the force of the world flying pass me. I stole the moment, the feeling that flowed over my fingers and deep into my soul. My heart burst and it felt good.
Even after landing, my head was in the clouds. I had discovered an even deeper love for a continent that I had already found home in. That evening as I sat around the braai with the rest of the team, I felt a sense of belonging and knew, I would be back again one day.
The following days in camp, I was exposed to the daily operations more. I am not sure if it was a blessing, but no poachers were encountered during my time. I am not sure how I would have dealt with it should they had to be honest. I was under the belief that the poachers were desperate to make a living, maybe feed a family or help a dying relative. What I did learn, pure greed drove the poachers. Not a dire need to survive, but a need to have more in a materialistic world. It made my blood boil and I was thankful in my time there not to encounter such a person.
What I did encounter, was people dedicating their lives to protect the wildlife that were defenceless to human destruction and greed. People who do not live an ordinary life. They are isolated, living without the comforts the rest of us take for granted. They don’t do it for the money. They don’t do it for the recognition. The do it because they care. And they do it without question. Day in and day out.
I walked away from that camp with an immense respect and compassion for the people who wake every day and fight a fight many of us know nothing of. I have never felt more honoured to be invited into the world of DAGCT, if only for a moment. It is a moment that will stay with me forever, and in that forever I will continue to help in any way possible. For I have seen it. I learnt it. I understand it. So I can work to protect it.