On the frontline

What is it that drives anti-poaching units to do the work they do? We spoke with the team at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve to find out what it means to them

Big risk: As part of their daily work routine, the rangers at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve face the possibility of poachers. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

Just three hours’ drive from Cape Town, situated in the Western Cape province of South Africa, Frank Le Hanie and his small team of rangers at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve are responsible for nearly 60,000 hectares of landscape and wildlife within the Little Karoo. A number of endangered species live at Sanbona, including a handful of rhinos, elephants, lions and cheetahs. 

Although poaching incidents are relatively low in the province, it is still a risk to get up and go to work everyday, says Le Hanie. 

“Here at Sanbona, we are situated quite far away from the nearest town, but that doesn’t mean people don’t try [poaching],” he says as he juggles checking up on the rangers on duty, planning the team’s next training mission and making sure that the herd of white rhinos who live at Sanbona are not disturbed while they enjoy their lunch – a mixture of grass and vet-approved supplements. 

“These guys know what they’re doing, they scout, they plan – they only get one chance to get it right.”

In the five years that he has worked as the reserve’s head of security, there has not been any poaching, but there have been incidents which he feels could have led to that. Once, he says, passing a family of elephants, his men found an empty can of condensed milk and some matches high up in the mountains overlooking the reserve. 

“These guys know what they’re doing, they scout, they plan – they only get one chance to get it right,” he says. 

He believes that a combination of a small population of rhinos in the province and increased awareness are the reasons poaching has not yet been an issue for Sanbona. Although he cannot disclose details about the training that his rangers receive and even the men themselves are hesitant to describe what they do on a day-to-day basis, they have to be twice as prepared as any potential poachers. 

Like with the Kruger National Park, explains Le Hanie, most of their intel comes from interacting with the surrounding communities. He emphasises the importance of showing face outside of the reserve and attributes much of the poaching that goes on throughout South Africa to poachers’ ability to get intel from inside reserves. 

“I understand that this is often an act of desperation, and that often these are just poor people trying to feed their families, but that doesn’t justify the act,” he says.

PoachTracker: Over 8, 000 rhinos have been poached since 2010, according to the tool developed by Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism. Photo: Provided

At least 8,374 rhinos have been killed for their horns in Southern Africa since 2010, according to PoachTracker, a tool developed by Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism. The higher up on the map you go, the higher the numbers are, with as few as nine rhinos poached in the Western Cape and 59 in the Northern Cape, to 4, 557 in the Kruger National Park and 1, 030 in KwaZulu-Natal. 

The same can be said for rhino poaching-related court cases, with only a few cases taking place within the lower-down provinces and more the further up you travel. These include busting kingpins like Thai trafficker Chumlong Lemtongthai, who was responsible for the illegal killing of at least 26 rhinos and Vietnamese hunter ‘Musina Mafia’, a regular in South Africa. 

What is it that drives Le Hanie, his men and rangers to do the anti-poaching work that they do, and consistently put themselves in the line of danger? 

A 24-year-old ranger from Ladysmith, who has been at the reserve for close to four years, says that it is his relationship with the animals that makes him stay. “It’s not like anything I’ve ever experienced, it’s special.”

Dangers on the frontline: Over the last year, close to 150 rangers have been killed across the global, with almost half of them being killed by poachers while on the job. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

Sanbona is just one of the organisations supported by the Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA), an NGO that offers support, training and promotes the interest of rangers across the continent.

Over the last year, 149 rangers across the globe have been killed with at least 54 of them being from Africa, GRAA said in a statement in July 2019. “Many ranger deaths go unreported, so the actual figure is thought to be two to three times higher.” 

While many of their deaths are due to car accidents and animal-based encounters, just under half of ranger deaths recorded globally were because they were killed in the line of duty – either by poachers, unknown assailants or insurgents. 

“Although proactive strategies are crucial to combat wildlife crime, the fight against rhino poaching will always rely on having well trained, well equipped, well led and supported rangers in the field to protect, monitor and conserve our rhino,” says Andrew Campbell, CEO of the GRAA. “Tonight these rangers will save many rhinos from being slaughtered, allowing others to work on longer-term strategies like community engagement and the dismantling of organised crime syndicates. Without the concerted and dedicated efforts of rangers, the sad reality is there would be no rhinos left to protect.”

Roxanne Joseph

This investigation was developed with the support of the Money Trail project. Editorial support was provided by Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism.