Friday, 19 January 2018

The Deadliest Catch

As bullets buzz through the African dusk and clink into the armoured SUV's flank, it becomes hard to believe that the tour operators have not lost a passenger yet.
The most dangerous prey, we are assured by authors and fictional villains, is man, and the poachers shooting at us are determined to prove the point.

Our guides taking turns to return fire from cover reminds me of training. Swallowing a big gulp of nothing, I brace the rifle on its stand and squeeze off several rounds.
Training - something many poachers lack - is merely part of our arsenal. Befitting our lethal quarry, our safari is bolstered by the likes of drones, and the tracer rounds we switch to as the firefight extends past nightfall.
No-one in our party of five seems fatigued, perhaps fueled like I am by camaraderie, adrenaline, and admittedly, some self-righteousness.
When prices for ivory and rhino horn surpassed $730 and $65,000 US dollars per kilogram respectively, impoverished law enforcement budgets could not contain the surge of poaching which peppered the veldt with carcases of nearly-extinct species. Governments which had previously turned a blind eye to 'wet' conservation work decided to harness it. Legislative change - cheaper than ranger salaries - met a demand for boutique tourism.
Visitors apply for immunity from prosecution and receive guarantees of acquittal in case over-zealous law enforcement is encountered, or local citizens are among the fatalities. The process is expensive but smooth.
Likewise, money buys you certainty at Wittmanse Lading Conservation Resort. (The type of money my publisher has, but not this author.) Every service, from airport transfers, to the porters, to housekeeping is swift and friendly, making even the finest Sandton hotels seem amateurish in comparison. Within minutes of arriving, my bags are in my bungalow, I hold a cocktail in one hand, and shake the hand of duty manager Mr Gracious Okunde, with the other.

From the expansive Gracious, I enter the care of quartermaster and tour leader, Mark Verwoerd. Mark does not converse so much as recite vital words. During training: "Saifety. Brrace. Aim. Squeeze."
I do as instructed, and the practice target down range duly splinters. Gracious' applause let us know the dinner feast is ready. There are few spoils of war, but that does not mean warriors need be monks.
Not everything is as predictable once we leave camp. In fact, our encounter begins with a blunder: the failed flushing out of an elephant calf, which nearly rams our vehicle just before poachers' bullets tap on the armour.
During a pause in the gunfire, I try to calculate how much rhino horn our opponents would need to even the odds with their own night-vision gear, top-of-the-line vehicles, and base camp stocked with the Cape's finest chardonnay.
Mark interrupts with two hand signals, "hold fire" and "stay in cover."
Silence brings a man's cries out of the air, yet investigating would be perilous. The wounded may be screaming because he believes his comrades remain to hear and help.
Not a shot is fired as we inch into our vehicle and vacate, leaving the poacher to the clean-up crew. We become talkative the moment we reach a main road, including Mark, with whom I bravely raise my earlier thoughts. He recalls one poacher who had managed to purchase a rocket-propelled grenade, likely come from a Soviet factory via Islamists. Unfortunately, poor training and maintenance led to a misfire.
"Blue 'zone 'ed clean orff!" Mark exclaims.

Walking off next day's breakfast, I find a pile of weapons and belongings brought in by the clean-up crew, and the calf which stares at me as it receives treatment in its pen. Mindful that correlation is not causation, it cannot be ignored that rhino and elephant stocks have increased since adventure conservation tourism became widespread. Is there gratitude in those elephantine eyes? (Is that thought simply a projection of my ego?) Rather, should I thank it for its role in providing excitement to tourists like me?
How then should I think of the poachers who are essential to the experience, but whose livelihoods - and indeed lives - are consumed by these tours.
Surprisingly, Gracious does not unreservedly extol his operation's virtues. "We want you to think." he says over that evening's wildebeest andouillet and Franschoek cabernet. Perhaps it is my visible confusion that makes him add, "Out there, everything gets eaten. Everything."
As our shuttle chopper leaves the helipad, I glimpse not just the resort, but an ecosystem spanning governments, operators, tourists, and beasts whose survival depends on persuading man to turn their rifles away from them, towards each other.

Where to Stay

Wittmanse Lading Conservation Resort offers five-day packages starting at USD$50,000 pax., including helicopter transfers from airports and major metro areas.

What to Eat

Oscar's at Wittmanse Lading is famed for its apres-chasse balkenbrij. Vegan options include erwtensoep with gluten-free roggebrood.

When to Visit

Dry season (April - October) is when animals, and thus poachers, congregate around water holes.

For the Kids

Wittmanse Lading has an on-site zoo. Complementary shuttles to Kwazulu Water Park are available.

Before you Visit

Access the appropriate country's ministry of law website for legal liability exemption procedures. If interested in trophies, check your home country's rules on the importation of human remains.

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