Our trip to Africa was the start of a two year project filming for a documentary. Tom Martienssen (IMDB) and I were in Africa to meet and talk to a school we’ll be connecting with from Everest. We wanted a deeper understanding of the people, area and culture we were working with.
They live in a protected area for zebra, lions, rhino, elephants, leopards – all the iconic animals of Africa. The preservation of these animals is vital as their populations have been severely depleted over the last 30 years – rhino protection being very high on the preservation list as they are literally down to the last couple of hundred animals. We had a strong feeling this story should be told.
Borana is under the protection of an anti-poaching team called For Rangers. The person who trains the rangers is Pete Newland – one of the chaps climbing Everest with us next year on Expedition 8848. It made sense to film Pete in his work environment while also giving us great access to expand our story working with the rangers during training. Fortunately we arrived at a time when Pete was already on a 10 day training event which was perfect.
We spent valuable time with the rangers in training; eating and drinking with them, seeing their very basic military accommodation, how they lived from day to day. We got to know them pretty well and got a great understanding of how they lived together on the range, they openly shared their hopes and desires as people of Africa and also their concerns. We learned about their families and reasons for wanting to be rangers. We saw a committed, passionate team of people with a strong desire to protect their land and wildlife heritage.
Their enemies are the poachers – poor locals, attracted to a bloody job with the promise of money – 18+ months wages for one nights work. They enter protected areas heavy handed and heavily armed, killing elephants and rhino in shocking hits of up to 9 at a time. The poachers take the horns and disappear. However, the people who make the real money are waiting at the other end ready to deliver the stolen goods to a waiting market – exported to buyers in eastern countries. A brutal and violent business. The rangers are outnumbered by poachers but stand their ground at the front line as a deterrent – they’re dealing with a huge problem and sometimes a heavy hand is required.
We were able to witness, first hand, the level of training the rangers are put through. High level training delivered by specialist soldiers from the UK. We joined them for helicopter drills – flying low over the African plains, jumping out of the helicopter and going to ground. The helicopters are used to distribute the teams to various locations on the plains quickly. Once they’re on the ground the rangers walk to their position for night patrols – so the helicopters are well away from them. The rangers have to walk 2/3km to get to a high position to see across a particular location. Their aim is to protect the rhino but also keep an eye out for any poachers coming through.
This modest group of men are regularly called upon to defend Africa’s wildlife from the constant threat of, well funded and well equipped, poaching groups.
One night we were able to drive into a location with three rangers to witness their activities first hand. One person to guide and the other two on patrol for the night. They got into position and guided us in while checking the area for enemies – the poachers. They got to a site with a clear view for the evening. With them, they had a rucksack with dry food only – they can’t cook or start a fire, any light could alert the enemy to their presence. They can’t put up a tent for shelter because this would be seen as a break in the skyline – Africans have a great eye for seeing these things. These guys are able to spot an animal 3km away, hiding in a bush when we would need binoculars! The poachers are the same – if they spot soldiers operating an area they gain an upper hand so the rangers need to be very, very careful. Equipped with night sights and weapons these highly trained, elite units protect their land 24 hours of the day. The results of this drastic action are positive. It’s proven that over the last 5 years there hasn’t been any animal killings by poachers so the message is truly getting through – it’s not a good idea to be involved in poaching on any level, no matter the financial reward.
The time we spent with these guys, not only, gave us perspective but a new view. Their need to protect and support their environment, animals and their families is deeply ingrained. Fighting a perverse war between humans against animals, versus humans protecting the animals – a bizarre situation.
There is a brutal truth to this story and in my opinion, my personal view on this subject as an explorer? The only way to combat the slaughter is to send clear messages. Messages about destruction of the environment, animals, protection of our beautiful creatures on this planet. Humans act like we own the planet, there’s an arrogance about it – we lead busy lives and have an economy to run – not everyone of course, but some people do, too many people. I can’t tell you how great it is to see awesome teams like the rangers who are committing their lives to do the right thing. I have been honoured and humbled to be allowed into their world. They work to protect their lands but really they’re working for us all.