South Africa’s CellC Sharks rugby team, hailing from my home province of KwaZulu-Natal, is throwing their weight behind the rhino poaching crisis and the movement to save our iconic species from extinction.
I am currently on a special conservation assignment at the breathtaking Phinda Private Game Reserve with key members of the Sharks team, working side by side with rangers, the anti poaching unit, vets, and ecologists, while doing some community outreach.
I have to admit that I was feeling a little intimidated when I arrived at the Growthpoint Kings Park Stadium on Wednesday morning. While waiting for everyone to arrive and then head out together to Phinda, I was asked to wait in the empty boardroom, with photos and memorabilia spanning the walls, and suddenly memories from my childhood came flooding back to me – and then the stark realisation that I have no idea what’s going on in the world of rugby right now. I live in the bush with the wild things, and I certainly have no access to television, but the Sharks will always be my team.
I travelled with centre Paul Jordaan and fullback Joe Pietersen, and the only time when sport came up was when Joe said: “I think it’s important for professional rugby players to have something else going on in their lives other than rugby. For me, it’s the bush.”
Over the last four years, Joe and a few like minded people have been supporting an anti-poaching unit in the Limpopo’s Blue Canyon Conservancy. Joe spends a lot of his free time at this nature reserve, contributing to the upliftment of the anti-poaching unit with anything from boots and equipment to solar energy for their families. Paul is a wildlife farmer working alongside his dad, and he even has his own wildlife mobile app. So it’s no wonder that when we did the rhino darting on Thursday, he clipped that collar on like the pro that he is.
But no matter their background or hobbies, their commitment to put the hard yards in is really quite moving. Especially when close encounters with the wild is completely stepping out of their comfort zone, such as with Tera Mtembu. The day before the rhino darting our effervescent guide Matthew was determined to find Tera his first big cat. As the mother lioness strolled right past our vehicle I leaned into the front seat to get a better look, while Tera was at the back row of the sighting vehicle doing his best to make himself invisible. The next day I saw Tera notch a rhino’s ear and hold her DNA between his fingers.
The Sharks rugby players assisted the rangers with the darting and monitoring of four rhinos in preparation for them to be translocated. With the incessant poaching, coupled with one of the worst droughts in history, it’s imperative that these rhinos are moved in order to reduce the risk.
The Sharks players’ passion to save these magnificent prehistoric beasts is contagious, and it’s such a relief to see that there is no window dressing. As their marketing manager, Eduard Coetzee, said at the briefing when we first arrived at Phinda: “We don’t want any special treatment. It’s not about ticking a box. We want to do the work and feel the dirt under our fingernails.”
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