Citizen of the World

Citizen of the World

Today, on our very last day at this reserve, our wise, knowledgeable and caring guides took us deep into the bush for a tracking exercise so we could get a brief glimpse into the everyday and every-night ordeals of the anti-poaching teams. And let me tell you, saying it was hard, was an understatement.

Once in the bush, our guides spilt the six of us into two groups: one group represented the poachers and the other group represented the anti-poaching team. Each group had a ranger for protection. The anti-poaching team waited by the safari vehicle as my team, the poachers, ventured off into the bush making large foot tracks. In making the foot tracks, we were leaving a trail for the anti-poaching team to follow us by. This was an “intermediate” tracking exercise. Once the anti-poaching team found us, we would switch roles and my team would become the anti-poaching team, and the other team the poachers.

This seems simple enough, right? Almost like a hide and go seek game. No. For me, it went much deeper than that.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts, I’m an actress. What that means in this scenario, is that my occupational hazard is to get into character. I became the poacher and I became the anti-poacher.

My group was the first poaching group, and so we walked off into the bush with our ranger leading us. Since we were in the bush, and elephants, rhinos and lions were relatively near, our ranger had a loaded rifle with him and a panga. A panga, otherwise known as a machete, is used to cut down brush as well as to hack off the horns of rhinos. As we wound deeper and deeper into the bush, my mind slowed down, and I started thinking like a poacher. I looked at our ranger’s gun and knew that we would use it to stun the rhino, and then I looked at the panga and knew that we would use that to chop the horn off of the debilitated rhino’s face. Since I was a poacher, I was quiet, but also a bit relaxed; we had a job to do and I felt relatively safe. Poachers normally move through the bush during evening, when it’s dark, and then they retrieve their product in the early hours of the dawn. So, when it is light out, the poachers hunker down and nap. Once we finished our trail, my poaching team found a protective covering with trees all around. We lied down, “made ourselves small,” as our ranger ordered us, and waited.

Lying there, flat on the ground, I let my poacher-mind drift to my present situation and the task ahead of me. I imagined what packaged snacks I carried in my backpack, how much water I had to carry, and who held the bag that we would ultimately store the bloody and fleshy rhino horn in.

What kind of bag was it?

This catapulted me into my job of getting that horn. I pictured my team finally finding the rhino in the wee hours of the morning, and my lead team member shooting it. I then envisioned myself grabbing the panga, going up to the rhino, and literally hacking the horn out of its face. Then I started wondering: how hard do I have to hack to break through the skin? How many times do I have to hack? Will my arm be tired afterwards? Then, in my nightmare, I saw a rather typical addition to my job; there was a young rhino calf trying to protect its mother.

From all that I’ve learned from my work here at Youth 4 African Wildlife and from my time at The Rhino Orphanage, the rhino cow will typically have a young calf with her. These babies are a nuisance to the poachers, and consequently, the calves are often brutally injured or killed. These calves make this gut-wrenching wail and give away the location of the poaching incident; it makes much more sense for the poachers to kill or maim them in order to shut them up.

Once this realization came to my nightmare, I imagined myself having to chop this baby rhino’s back as it cried in agony and fear for its mother’s life. I then envisioned the adult rhino cow still alive, eventhough her face was now split open, and her looking me eye-to-eye and communicating with me; she was asking, “why?”

Needless to say, I had to put the breaks on my mind and stop thinking like a poacher for my personal sanity. I couldn’t keep thinking like that. Lying there, in the beautiful and shady safety of the trees, I was beginning to get an anxiety attack and was becoming depressed. I didn’t like this game anymore. Find me. Find me. FIND ME ANTI-POACHING TEAM!!!

Eventually, the group did find us; however we heard them first. That means we would’ve killed them.

Poachers 1 – Anti-Poaching 0

Then we got to switch places. Thank God! The other team became the poachers and went off into the bush, leaving their foot tracks. My team, the anti-poaching team, waited. As anti-poachers, we had to be extremely “stealthy,” as our ranger told us. So while we waited, we made hand signals to communicate silently as we tracked the bastard poachers. I couldn’t have been more excited when our ranger put on his backpack and said it was go time, time to hunt poachers. Since there were three non-ranger members on my group, we all decided we would take turns tracking; I eagerly announced that I would go first. And so I did…

We stood up, got in a line formation, and began the tracking. That is when my anti-poaching mind took over. I was an animal on the hunt. I was a savior. I was a rhino hero! Clad in my khaki trekking pants, a nerdy brown lion t-shirt, my LA Dodgers baseball cap and my all-important eyeglasses, I was a bush ninja.

To ensure that I was silent, I walked in a crouched position so that my knees would absorb all shock and noise. I kept my right hand out to the side, constantly signaling to my anti-poaching heroes behind me. Oh, and I had a long blade of grass in my hand that I would use to spot a foot track. Apparently, I would awkwardly run in this low crouch, with my hand out, constantly signaling, from track to track, gaining speed. When we briefly paused, my ranger, cracking up quietly, looked to me and said, “In all my 4 years of this [exercise,] I have never seen anyone like this. Your little hand is out all the time. You’re like a zen monkey tracker. You’ve got it in your blood.” With that rare badge of praise from our rough and tumble ranger, I pressed onward, trying to catch those damned poachers before it was too late. It was like putting the pieces of a puzzle together and I was determined to win.

After a few moments, I decided that I was hogging all of the tracking and so I let one of my other team members have a go. It was extremely hard for me not to track. I had the fever, the fever for more tracking!


We eventually approached a heavily grassed area and that’s when the tracking became impossible. We all spread out in different directions and couldn’t find the tracks anymore. It was extremely frustrating, as we were losing precious time. You see, when you were a poacher-hunter like I was, each moment wasted, was another moment closer to a rhino’s death. We searched and searched and searched. Nothing. Even our ranger with a nineteen-year career couldn’t find the tracks. After what seemed to be an eternity, we gave up. Our ranger whistled, then hooted and hollered until the poachers revealed themselves. What defeat. The poachers won and rhinos died.

Poachers 2 – Anti-Poachers 0

This exercise taught me a valuable lesson: the battle of finding poachers is extremely difficult and brutal. I was extremely shaken up after this exercise to say the least. It was both eye opening and devastating. Anti-poaching units risk their lives on a daily basis to protect rhinos and elephants. Yet still, three rhinos are killed every day, and four elephants are killed every hour. Those numbers are staggering and entirely crippling to these populations. Anti-poaching units do the best they can, but it’s still not enough. As long as poverty runs rampant in Southern Africa, and as long as Asian consumers crave rhino horn and ivory, these majestic animals will suffer a torturous death.

I am a lover of words. I believe words to be essential to life, understanding and relationships. Since my arrival in South Africa, I have changed a bit of my precious words. I’ve realized that the rhinos and elephants are not Africa’s rhinos and elephants, but that they are the world’s rhinos and elephants. They are mine. I take ownership over them. One of my favorite sayings, and something that I am constantly hashtagging, is “#citizenoftheworld.” I don’t pretend to or like to hide behind an ethnocentric American flag; I am a citizen of the world. You are my person; we are the same.

We all need to take a stance to protect our rhinos and elephants. Africa is not losing its wildlife, rather we are losing our wildlife. The anti-poaching units are brave, compassionate people, yet their battle is an unfair one. We need to take a stance by spreading awareness and changing our habits in order to protect wildlife.

I call on YOU.  I rally YOU to be a member of the anti-poaching team.

Roars, Kate Bowen

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