This particular Saturday was like most Saturdays. I was up early to guide two foreign clients on their hunt for the day. I woke up with great hope and positivity that this would be the day this client would get his kudu bull. He was an elderly guy and he had a degenerative eye disease which meant that his eye sight was failing fast and his days of hunting where probably numbered.
However, this day did not end the way I had hoped it would!
En-route to the concession which lay on the east side of the Bushman’s River below Estcourt town, I dropped off my tracker Zipho as usual to scout areas of the property. This we did to cover more ground quickly and hopefully bring our elderly client some success. We then continued towards the farm house, on nearing the house I noticed a man walking on the right hand side of the road and he was surrounded by 5 large hunting dogs. I should have realized then that today was to be slightly different!!
I did not show my international visitors the poacher as it would surely destroy the picture of wild South Africa they had in mind when booking their once in a life time safari. I made sure the poacher recognized me and began walking home before moving off with the vehicle. Hopefully that was it and we would have a successful day further. How wrong I was to be.
I dropped my second tracker, Richard off at a farm gate near a good vantage point and proceeded to the other side of the valley to take up my position. En-route I bumped into a herd of kudu and they raced off at the sight of the vehicle.
Again alarm bells went off in my head as this was totally uncommon behavior on a property where no hunting from a vehicle is permitted.
The Hilux rocked and bounced to its destination and as I was getting out the vehicle the radio came to life, it was Richard. He told me there where poachers on the property!! Damn it!! This was not to be a normal days hunting after all.
I inquired as to how many poachers there were. The answer I received is where things started to slide downhill. “Hey Hamish no I can’t count them!!’ was the answer.
“Richard what do you mean you can’t count them?” I asked.
“No Hamish there are lots!!” he replied.
Now what was I to do?? I had to consider the two foreign clients whose safety I was responsible for, as well as the two trackers and myself. I told the clients I would be back shortly and was going up a mountain to take advantage of a look out for kudu. I ran up the mountain and phoned the farmer.
Bruce answered and I told him what I was witnessing. I was told to stand down and leave them alone.
Man I did not know how to handle this as this group of poachers was about to inflict untold damage to his farm and my game which we had on concession. In my head I was going through my options and how could I handle this and keep everyone’s safety a priority.
I had my anti-poaching gear in the truck but was it the sensible move to engage this crew?
I needed more information so I radioed Zipho who was at a closer view point to the group. He answered the radio and immediately I knew we had big trouble here. His nerves where evident on the radio and his voice shaky. “Hamish I think we must leave. There are 33 poachers here well over 100 dogs and 7 of them have rifles.”
Oh man. This was not a casual days poaching, this was an organized mass assault on this property and no one or nothing would get in their way.
I phoned the farmer again and again his message was clear. Do not engage.
I phoned our farm security to seek assistance and advice. Again I was told do not engage.
As I clearly had no support and no advantage I decided that discretion is the better part of valor and walked away.
This decision was extremely difficult as I have hunted and generated funds to look after this farm since 1999. I have seen this farm grow from a cattle ranch to one of the best free range kudu hunting destinations in KwaZulu Natal and now ending in THIS.
I radioed my trackers and told them to fall back to the district road we were pulling out. With two very confused foreign guests we left the farm two hours after arriving. Leaving the farm was also a concern, the question were we going to bump into this armed mass on the district road and be assaulted?
I contacted the trackers again and asked if the road was clear to get off the property. They said they believed it was and between the three of us we decided to run for it.
This road is known as Kemps road and it is approximately 20km long. On our return trip we saw a further three different groups of poachers and another as we passed through Estcourt.
Poaching like this I have never seen before!! I have lived and hunted in this area for 39 years and this is a very sad day. I would like to take this opportunity to break this day down and show you the factors that are making this the final stand of free ranging wildlife in this area of Africa.
- Land redistribution
This is the single biggest factor in the wildlife Armageddon we are seeing in this area. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s we saw this area booming, with game farms springing up and lodges bringing in guests from all over the world. With this wildlife numbers were booming as every man who had privately owned land could protect it to the letter of the law and if it was a cattle farm the game thereon was a source of additional income.
Through hunting, lodging and a vast array of other outdoor activities farmers had become the great conservationists as they were protecting the habitat for both livestock and game. The grazing and browsing on any property was been utilized to the full and great numbers of game where flourishing.
With the land claims and land restitution claims that were instituted in the area this all changed. There was no longer a sole land owner who could protect the land to the letter of the law. Now you had loose community leadership and partnerships with the old farmers leasing land back from communities.
This lead to great confusion as to who owned the game and what was to be done about protecting it. In most cases when the farm was sold the game was sold along with it. This meant the communities where now responsible for its protection. As illustrated in the story above, this has not worked as now no one has clear directives to protect the game.
As on that day I was instructed buy the farmer to walk away. Why? If someone had been shot dead and a court case ensued who would be there as the owner of the land? On whose behalf would I have acted? Who would back me up in court? Would everyone merely wash their hands of the problem and I would have to stand alone in my fight against a murder charge or destruction of property charge.
The risks and consequences of my actions were great and without clear land ownership outlines it was no one’s responsibility to protect these animals.
- Poor governance and policing.
The governance in this area under ANC rule is proving to be very poor. With service delivery strikes almost daily and failing municipalities and facilities it is no wonder the area is collapsing. With an astounding number of farms being claimed and restituted even more jobs have been destroyed. In Weenen a healthy group of 36 commercial farms were operating in 2000. There are now 6 left in 2017.
These were all vegetable, crop and fruit farms. Mass employers who are now all but gone. Pivots sit and rust in the fields, thorn trees grow where the crops used to be and fruit trees have been cut down for fire wood. What we now see is a total collapse of the small rural centers with a massing of people around the larger centers where there are some factories and employment opportunities.
This is a governance issue. Where poor decisions are being backed up by poor delivery and poor support systems and then compounded by a non-existent police force. The judicial system is also at fault as I have personally had 16 court cases for poaching related incidents and have never had one result in any kind of prosecution. The dockets where either lost or statements so bad that a half decent lawyer could tear them apart.
I realize the police do have challenges but the levels of corruption, fraud and blatant misconduct in the police force are unprecedented. There are very few of these poaching cases that are even reported anymore as the level of police interest is negligible and the involvement of the police is highly probable. Why do the remaining farmers have to belong to private security companies and make public groups to secure themselves when they should be the ones creating great job opportunities and not buying new fancy potato lifters when we have people who desperately need work?
- Jobs. Lack of employment.
We currently have a hideous unemployment rate. Well over half the working age people in this area are without work. How do we possibly think we will be able to protect game on free ranging areas when people cannot feed themselves? People with no hope or pride will not instil these beliefs in their kids. Our proud history of wildlife on private land has become a privileged point of view but with its disappearance we will lose yet another source of employment and protein creation.
- Population Pressure.
On a recent anti-poaching bust, myself and my farm security caught a group of poachers in possession of a threatened and protected species, a common reedbuck. This animal had been chased off my land and killed on municipal land. I had caught the crowd of poachers and apprehended them. The oldest one was about 14.
They were kids and there was no hope of prosecution of any sort. However, the police were summoned and KZN Wildlife Ezemvelo was also summoned. KZN arrived shortly afterwards and where keen to take matters further. We proceeded to wait for 3 hours for the police to arrive. They never did arrive. The KZN Wildlife official summoned the kids to a meeting the next day at the school in the local area. They were told to attend with a parent. This happened the next day at two and the matter was handled. The astonishing part was how many kids attended this small farm school, 1600.
How on earth are we going to keep habitat available to wildlife when we have this kind of population pressure coming up on top of the 50 per cent of our population who already do not work? We are facing the possibility of 75 per cent of commercial farming in this area being lost to subsistence farming and inhabitation.
- DOG HUNTING.
Dog hunting has become a major tool in the absolute carnage of wildlife in this area from game birds to eland these dogs are a key in the demolition of our wildlife. There are different kinds of dog hunting that occur and these are:
- Subsistence dog hunting.
This is where people utilize dogs to gather meat for them and their families. This is usually low impact and relatively easy to control.
- Commercial dog hunting.
This is where large packs of dogs are used to kill large numbers of animals to sell into the local communities and Shisa Nyama’s. This is usually backed up with vehicles and firearms and can range from 3 to 50 poachers at a time. This is what we encountered on the weekend and this is mass killing of any species the dog can catch. This is extremely difficult to control as the numbers are high and the risk of a gun fight or altercation is good. This is highly avoided by police as there is a high risk of confrontation and shootings. Poachers are usually armed and usually well connected with the communities.
- Taxi Hunting.
This is a form of hunting which has evolved into a form of gambling. This is also a mass hunt where numerous poachers are used with highly trained packs of dogs to hunt game. This is different from commercial hunting but can also serve commercial purposes with animals being sold. However, the major motivation is to bet on the packs of dogs and wager money on their success. This is also very difficult to control as the people involved are usually of high standing and may travel from long distances to join in these hunts. They may even be invited depending on the quality of their dog packs. Here again police willingness to help is minimal and their involvement is often suspected. Firearms are commonly carried but usually not used as the wagers are about the dogs and their success or failure. Hand guns are more often encountered by these poachers.
Poaching like I saw that weekend I have never seen before. On Kemps Road alone there were over 50 people in 4 different groups hunting our wildlife. Animals were standing in small groups bunched together waiting to run for their lives. I am one of the last Hunting Outfitters in this area and it is becoming very difficult to run a business here. The land issues have limited the number of animals and areas available to us and the lack of animals means a lack of opportunities I can offer to the hunter.
The watershed effect will be another fourteen jobs down the drain and another group of families who will have to poach to try and get some protein to eat as there is no other option. There would be little hope of getting employed especially in an area where their skill set of tracking and lodge management are no longer needed.
It is so sad to see an entire conservation model based on utilization disintegrate to this level where all that is left is subsistence farming. No more wildlife on private land. Soon there will only be game in game reserves and the thrill of seeing or hunting a big kudu bull on your own land will be gone for good.
One day we will look back and we will be the lucky generation who got to experience free ranging game on open farming areas.
We all hear about the disappearance of the Rhino population. 1000 a year and more but no one ever speaks about the disappearance of our plains game. Through land redistribution and its associated problems not least of which is poaching I can account for 30 000 head of plains game that has disappeared from this area.
The area I speak of is the Tugela, Estcourt, Muden and Mooi River districts. The decline of wildlife and the on-going onslaught is unprecedented and continues unabated like a wave surging from the Tugela towards the Drakensberg consuming all the plains game in its wake, leaving a sterile environment only suitable for cattle and goats.
It is funny how the animal rights activist are so quick to jump on a legal safaro hunted lion but how often do you see a public outcry and mass social media explosion over a common reedbuck or oribi.
Half these people would say “What is an Oribi?” We live in a warped world where an individual with absolutely no qualification on a topic has as much power as a person with a doctorate in the same subject. We have platforms where people can say and chant things that can have no factual content but been taken as fact. Where people need no understanding of a situation but can pressurize governments and decision makers to make bad calls.
It is a strange new world and as much as everyone bounces up and down about right and wrong and this and that but on the ground fewer and fewer people are left to fight the real fight!!
We hunters and land owners are the last bastion against the poaching of our natural heritage in this area. With the total destabilization of the ownership structure the building blocks of conservation in this area have disintegrated and are on the brink of total collapse. Soon there will be no wildlife and shortly thereafter the birds and bees as without habitat nothing can survive.