This letter is an invitation to the frontlines of a conflict zone where I’ve spent the last weeks.
It’s pouring down rain in Kruger right now. Rivers are filled to the banks and muddy-colored. As I write, a waterbuck walks the bank opposite me, one horn oddly twisted but long and mature. It’s growing dim, and the rain is coming stronger, with thunder behind it now.
The world tried to close off South Africa yet again, but we are here working, today literally on the frontlines of the Rhino War. Where we work, we help protect the last great populations of rhino.
Yesterday rhino were poached, too many, aggressively by coordinated poacher militia. I saw with my eyes a bull rolling on its side, its spine cut open by a panga, a bullet through his ribs, both brutalities in an attempt to immobilize him to hack his face off and take his horn, which, ounce for ounce, will prove the most valuable material in the world when delivered to the black market. The South African rhino population has been reduced today.
A truly bad day in the Rhino War now could see a single percentage point drop in the population of one of two few rhino species that remain on the continent.
Here’s what we’ve done lately.
We equipped Ranger rifles in two parks with red-dot optics mounted on specially fabricated rail systems we had made for them in the US.
We developed a shooting range, provided slings, and set up a live-fire training program.
We’ve worked with the greatest concentrated population of black rhino in the world, and fortunately, these are not on the poacher’s radar — for now. The surge is coming.
Our next focus, however, lies off the coast of the country where we will help protect a sanctuary that is home to great white sharks, penguins, gannets, and, for a little while longer, a vitally important abalone habitat.
Poachers come by boat and they decimate the area on a near-nightly basis — whenever the waves are under 2.5 meters and the moonlight is right.
We can help. Cresting two-meter waves and crossing pods of hundreds of dolphins, we brought our Special Ops assessment capabilities to this unique corridor to come up with a solution to protect it.
We have a plan, one that necessitates a specialized watercraft, unique training, and other tools. I can’t elaborate more on what we will do nor where we will do it — our work is only effective when in secret, providing undisclosed capabilities.
Our goal is to secure this marine corridor where poachers deploy and contribute to the billion-dollar illicit abalone trade and empower the local poaching syndicate which will soon set its sights on the rhino.
No one else has been asked to help, no one else has offered. This is our mission and we can do it.
This is one program. We continue our focus on the frontlines of the Rhino War, and here’s where things get a bit difficult to even write about.
A number of news stories have reported a drop in rhino poaching in 2020 in various parks and countries. While it’s true, those headlines are misleading — the world was shut down, including trafficking routes and poacher movements.
I predicted a surge, warned the optimists about it and it’s now hitting and as I mentioned above, I’m seeing it firsthand.
The rhino killed yesterday are the beginning of a new wave of war, I’m afraid. Loss of income, loss of opportunity will be met with new aggression from Southeast Asian syndicates and terror groups eager to exploit these resources.
One frontline official told me that many predict the rhino in South Africa may only less than a decade left if the trends that are starting now continue.
Those aren’t histrionics, that isn’t an arbitrary number thrown out to scare you. These are realities, and there’s more:
Rangers we know are fighting depression from the COVID isolation and the growing toll of the war. Many did not sign up to watch their teammates shot and killed. Last week a team of Rangers saw a teammate eaten by a lion as they tried desperately to save him.
The poachers are relentless; the men have no days off, and very little support.
These men and women have been isolated from their families during the shutdown. Parks on the continent face as much as an 80% reduction in conservation and protection budget — funding comes from tourism, which has stopped.
The drop in poaching is the calm before the storm. It’s raining now. The storm is coming.
70% of Kruger’s rhino have been lost in the past 10 years. Kruger National Park, where Eco Defense Group was born, and where we work actively, released rhino numbers. This from the International Rhino Foundation:
“There are currently only 3,529 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos left in the park, reduced from more than 11,000 total for both species in 2011. While there is some cause to be thankful that poaching numbers are down this year, it may be because there are fewer rhinos to poach.”
We are proud to say that we are making a difference, our collaboration, training, consultation, and development programs — supplemented by the support of companies like Original Footwear, who are helping to supply every Ranger that we train with two pairs of new field boots; Surefire, Sig Sauer, and Edgar Sherman design who has agreed to provide rifle slings with us for every Ranger we train and every Ranger in Kruger.
We’re working hard, and our hard work, I’m proud to say, is working. Bit by bit. We can’t let up, because the Rangers we support can’t.
No days off.
Here is the case that I made to our visiting donor, and here is the case I will make to you now: everything is against the rhino. Every force imaginable is against the rhino and other defenseless species.
There are a small number of brave Rangers, though, who stand against the poachers — like the Spartans at Thermopylae. We can empower them, train them, equip them. That is why Eco Defense Group exists. The frontline Rangers lack resources that no one can provide, but we can make them more capable with what they do have, and we can give them a few new tools to make a difference in the fight that they face.
This isn’t dramatic language, either. We see the difference it makes when we bring the only men who have never lost a fight and who have beaten back every enemy, they’ve faced to Africa to help the Rangers do the same.
Lights. Rails. Boots. Training. A boat. A dog. These things, placed strategically, will be force multipliers for the brave few that stand in the gates as an army comes against them.
We need sponsors, supporters, foundational donors — investors, in fact, in our effort, our effect, and in the future of wildlife.
We need people willing to stand with us behind the men that stand between the rhino and the poacher.
The photos here are some of my personal photos from this week of the awesome place(s) we have been invited to and have promised to help protect and to help keep safe against all odds. It is a gift to be in these places for a day, a week, a lifetime. It’s a gift I hope to give to my kids.
The waterbuck lifts his skewed horns and listens across the river to the territorial growling of a male lion. Rain relents for a moment so I can watch him climb the bank and disappear into the thick green bush and the protective shadow of the Marulas.
This place I call my home away from home is a war zone and I will not rest so long as it is threatened.
Thank you for reading — work begins anew tomorrow.
From Nathan Edmonson of the Eco Defense Group