A wildlife tale of heartbreak and hope

Review: Vivien Horler

Rewilding Africa – Restoring the wilderness on a war-ravaged continent, by Grant Fowlds with Graham Spence (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Game ranger Sibonelo Zulu is a marked man. He never leaves home without wearing his Kevlar bullet-proof vest. Grant Fowlds writes that it is as natural to him as putting on a shirt.

But he adds: “The poachers are after him with the same deadly intensity that they murder rhinos.”

One of the reasons for the danger Zulu finds himself in is his steely determination to beat the poachers. “Come into my park and you’re dead.”

In September 2015 eight rhino were slaughtered under a poacher’s moon in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. In May 2017, under another poacher’s moon, nine animals were killed and dehorned in the same park.

Now, on March 6, 2020 there was another full moon, and Zulu and his fellow rangers had been tracking a group of poachers for an hour. Poachers generally are armed with the latest and most powerful fire power, while Zulu and his men had Lee Enfield .303s, a model which saw action in World War 1, more than a century ago.

Zulu saw a poacher, fired, and the man went down. He saw another a couple of metres away and fired again. It was also a hit. The rangers waited, and then heard crashing through the bush. Far from fighting back, the rest of the poachers were fleeing.

Fowlds writes that thanks to improvements in security at the Kruger National Park, (read my review of Rhino War Courage and grit: one man’s quest to save SA’s rhino) poachers were moving south from Mpumalanga to KZN reserves where rangers simply were not as formidable or as well-equipped.

When Zulu went up to the first body and toed it over, all the rangers said: “Hau!” simultaneously. They all recognised the man: it was Leon Stoltz, the most wanted poacher in South Africa.

He was from Hazyview, which is close to Kruger, but he and his right-hand man Bhekumzi Matonse, also shot dead that night, had moved to what they had thought was a safer area. It turned out it wasn’t.

Almost overnight rhino-poaching dropped in KZN, although the killings coincided with the Covid lockdown, which also had an effect.

Fowlds says rangers such as Zulu are “the planet’s super-heroes. The debt we owe them is unpayable”.

Fowlds’s family are landowners who have been steadily turning farms into wildlife havens in South Africa, much of which is described in his first book, Saving the Last Rhinos. He is a member of Project Rhino Alliance, an association of conservation bodies, private and community-owned reserves, rhino owners and leading NGOs and anti-poaching organisations.

Much of what Fowlds does is support communities through various projects, because it is only with community buy-in that reserves can continue to exist and that endangered animals will be saved.

He also spends a lot of time looking for suitable land where animals can be established, not only in South Africa but further afield in Africa, including Botswana, Namibia, the DRC and Mozambique. Many of these places have lost their original wildlife to war.

Fowlds and his associates, including the invaluable overseas funders, are dedicated to their task but they are beset at every turn. Poachers want horns and tusks and meat, people want land, farmers and communities living near reserves become hostile when animals break out. And there is never enough money.

He tells of one setback near Mbombela in a chapter called Burnout at Bongani.

Bongani Mountain Lodge is a lodge in the middle of an 8 000ha state-owned reserve called Mthethomusha on the edge of the southern Kruger Park. The lodge is on a cliff in the Malelane Moutains, but below, attracted by the fast-growing town of  Mbombela, formerly Nelspruit, shanty towns are springing up..

Bongani caters for many international visitors which means it employs locals to keep the lodge going. And the owners do a great deal of charity work in the area. However, with poachers nervous of Kruger’s security, Mthethomusha was regarded by some as a “pantry”.

Fowlds writes: “…the two sides of the fence [between the reserves] could not be more different. On the Kruger flank was a war being won; the other a Wild West corridor chocked with lethal wire snares and illegal gunmen hunting almost at will.”

One night a patrol of rangers was caught in a firefight with poachers. Neither the police nor the management of the reserve responded. Eventually the rangers radioed they had run out of ammunition and were going to run for their lives.

Just 24 hours later, the lodge got calls from residents in local villages warning that 50 heavily armed men were planning to storm the lodge and were marching to the gates.

To say more here would be to spoil the story Fowlds goes on to tell, but it was a terrible time. And it led to a large-scale loss of jobs in the area.

This book is full of amazing people who do amazing things – including regularly putting their lives on the line – to save Africa’s wildlife. They face tremendous odds, but go on, doing what they can to save our heritage,

Fowlds writes: “At times I feel like weeping with gratitude for the brave souls whom I meet wherever I go… That courage, that loyalty and that commitment to a better future are what makes many of us get up in the morning.”

This book is full of heartbreak, but also full of hope. And it’s worth reading.

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