Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Boots on the ground

Just a bunch of ordinary women making an extraordinary difference. Bush Babes Conservation and Adventures hosted their first “boots-on-the-ground” intervention to remove snares in the Hoedspruit area and worked alongside the amazing dogs and handlers from K9 Conservation. Despite the horror and dread of seeing first-hand what rangers have to deal with on a daily basis and what really happens to animals being trapped, there was a lot of beauty and blessings. And a Babe christened “Balbyter”

Poaching is a crisis in South Africa. Sadly, most people think of poaching in bigger terms, like rhino, elephant, pangolins, and other more exotic animals that are normally destined for the Asian market. Everyday illegal bush meat and muti poaching is, however, something that is happening right under our noses and ordinary citizens are oblivious to it. In the veldjie close to your home, at the spruit where you love to go mountain biking, in the open servatite grounds on the adjacent plot, the unoccupied stand a few houses down the street. It is not only wild animals like duiker, wild rabbits and other small antelope that fall victim. Snares are also the indiscriminate killer of pets (yes, domestic cats and dogs) too.

But as the saying goes, bad things happen when good people do nothing. And with this in mind, the concept of a Bush Babes K9 Snare Removal Experience was born as an opportunity for women from all walks of life to do something about poaching. As with every Bush Babes excursion and even more so with pioneer first-of-its-kind adventures like this, it is imperative to find the right people to collaborate with.

Reinette van Niekerk, who has long been our ‘wild horse person’ in Kaapsehoop and a Bush Babe for ten years, told me about Anke Kruger from K9 Conservation in Hoedspruit. My Facebook stalking led me to a picture of a young redhead, crossing a crocodile infested river in her khaki shorts with her firearm drawn from the holster… ready for action. Wow. I knew instinctively that this was the match I had been waiting for. This anti-poaching unit manager of all the Hoedspruit K9 Conservation Units is a she-hero, fighting against poachers and standing her ground in a man’s world. A born Bush Babe and wildlife warrior.

For the love of dogs

Fifteen Bush Babes arrived in a sweltering hot Hoedspruit on a Friday afternoon. Our weekend started with meeting Anke and her team on their farm, Raindance Ridge. Anke is even more beautiful and mesmerising in real life, a bush nymph with astounding knowledge and passion. She walked us through the bush to the training area where we greeted by a life-size rhino sculpture made of wire.

Anke introduced us to K9 Conservation Director, Conraad de Rosner – her ranger hubby who has spent most of his life fighting wildlife crimes. Conraad is a real storybook character with the most beautiful voice and way of speaking. This statue before us is his work of art. The one-tonne rhino is made up of about 7 000 snares that have been removed from the 40 000 hectares under the K9 Conservation’s watch in Hoedspruit. More than 160 people who have helped to remove snares in the area over the past six years have their snares incorporated in this chilling statue (that, sadly, keeps growing every week).

We were captivated by Anke and Conraad’s stories and their knowledge of and passion for what they do, but it was time to meet the K9 team. We hung on their lips as they told us the story of each dog that works for K9 Conservation, how they are trained, what it takes and how truly rewarding it is. The Babes even had the opportunity to go into the runs and spend some time with the dogs.

Anke explained that there are three main categories of dogs in their field. Firstly, there are patrol dogs that are usually the stereotype shepherd dogs used for safety. Apache the Malinois and Anubis the black shepherd fall in this category. Secondly, you get conservation dogs that are good with tracking, finding wounded animals and animal contraband and are critical in assisting wildlife vets. This role is currently fulfilled by Weimaraners. Thirdly, you get the cold scent tracking dogs that are mostly hounds able to track older scents of five to 24 hours. An interesting bloodhound Doberman cross called Hashtag fills that position on Raindance Ridge. Of course, various dogs can be trained for various categories but some dogs, like bloodhounds, are biologically better adapted for scent work, due to the large inner surface of their noses. From there we moved to the open grounds where we were going to experience first-hand what these dogs are capable of. The red sand, bright blue skies and acacia trees made for the most beautiful setting. The women were all hyped up and couldn’t wait to learn how to give the dogs commands, hold them back and let them loose for the attack. The surprise was that a few daring, crazy Babes would get the opportunity to don the bite suit and be taken down by Jock, Anke’s personal bodyguard and hero deluxe – a smallish Pitbull-type cross with superpowers.

The moment the dogs were harnessed, they knew it was working time. Their demeanour changed in an instant. Between Conraad and Anke they demonstrated how the dogs are trained to bite, as well as where to bite. It was fascinating to witness how well the dogs follow commands and react to the correct words being used. Everyone wanted to work with Anubis, the gorgeous black shepherd male. He is fierce and strong, and you really have to stand your ground and keep your lower body anchored to keep him in check.

Babes in action

After this, three volunteers had the opportunity to be the bad guy, put on the bite suit and be taken down by Jock on Anke’s command. Just getting into the suit was already hilarious and we couldn’t stop laughing. Best friends, Suellen and Monique – who have been Bush Babes for 10 years – and newbie Elsje jumped at the opportunity. Flashes of the Oros-man and the the giant marshmallow of the 1980’s Ghostbuster movie came to mind. It is impossible to run in the suit, although being chased by a killer dog will inspire you to still do your best, or at least try.

The deadly speed and precision with which Jock managed to take Suellen and Monique down was simply astounding. The action was documented from all angles and although a bit out of breath, both of our brave babes were in good shape and laughing uncontrollably, probably from shock and relief combined. Everyone was amazed at how Jock persists in his job of keeping the assailant down until Anke instructs him to let go.

Then it was Elsje’s turn. She’s a very tall, strong woman and we all thought that it was not going to be so easy to take her down. All suited up, Elsje was instructed to run away from Jock – or rather shuffle away, since that is all the bite suit allows). Jock was already set free when Elsje, for some reason, decided to turn around. In one motion, Jock bit Elsje in the crotch and lifted her off her feet on impact. On the photos it looks like he is jumping while pushing Elsje into the air. He pushed her over and dragged her down on her stomach, pinning her down and not letting go. We could not believe the strength of this rather small dog. The sequence of action photos of the attack will be a talking point for years to come on any Bush Babes trip. It also resulted in Elsje being christened “Balbyter Babe”, since every Bush Babes member gets a Babe name on their first trip.

The following morning, we geared up and drove in convoy to the farm we were destined to sweep for snares. We were briefed on what to do and what to expect. It was hot and humid and we had to stop regularly to drink water and ensure the dogs stayed hydrated. It is hard to imagine doing this for living day in and day out and gives one a taste of the thankless war people like Anke and Conraad are fighting.

Many of us walked right into snares. The more you train your eyes to identify the snares and you know what to look for, the more you see. Conraad explained the various kinds of snares and how they work while we scanned the area. We found a myriad of snares in the area we were covering. The area had been swept recently, but especially in the thick bushes, it is impossible to find all the snares in one go. And this is where the difficulty lies: having enough resources…having people on the ground wherever there is wildlife to continuously remove snares and go back to remove even more snares.

On one particular day we were scanning the small corner of the farm we had been dropped off at and found four animals that had died the most horrific deaths in these snares, which the poachers never even bothered to come back to. One being the farmer’s prized sable. It was extremely harrowing to see how the animals had struggled to try and free themselves. The evidence was on the surrounding trees and shrubs… and the wire still around the decomposing animal’s neck or body. It is hard not to cry. Impossible, to be honest. It is hard to believe that this happens all around us. Every day.

Conraad explained that it is common for poachers to set up so many snares that they sometimes can’t find them all again, or when they have caught something, they move on, leaving their death traps to keep doing their evil work, long after they have left.

We were emotionally and physically depleted as we return to Raindance Ridge in the late afternoon. Everyone was busy with their own thoughts. We gathered at the lapa where the fire was already burning and the spit braai in the background promised an evening of good food and wonderful company.

Anke gathered us around and asked us to bring the snares we had removed for the day. She shared her other passion of creating dreamcatchers of these snares and selling them to raise funds in the fight against poaching. She opened a myriad of containers with all imaginable colours of string and stones and feathers and charms and helped each of us to create our own unique dreamcatcher that would always bear testimony to the cruelty we had witnessed. Deep in thought we all sat stringing beads, weaving yarn and living out our creativity in our own unique dreamcatchers, knowing that today we really made a boots-on-the ground difference.

Getting home from an extremely fulfilling, but physically draining weekend, I proudly gave my nine-year old daughter the pink and white dreamcatcher I’d made for her from the snare I removed and the feathers I picked up while sweeping the farm. She loved it and together we put it up in her room. I told her all about our weekend and how we ended up making these beauties from the very thing that killed those poor animals. It was hard for her to grasp but I remembered what Anke said: “Not only is the art a way of giving me a muchneeded escape from the reality of wildlife crime, but it also allows me the opportunity to actively manifest positive energy by turning something that is cruel and inhumane into something good.” We all have to play a part in creating that something good.

Weekend in the life of a Game Ranger

The next Bush Babes K9 Snare Removal Experience is taking place from 28 – 30 October 2022 and will incorporate all facets of being a ranger. This includes bush craft, shooting with various firearms rangers would use, fire and movement, tracking and dog handling, survival and more. CONTACT: +27 82 779 0602 (Leilani Basson)

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