Johannesburg – Just metres away, five armed men have their sights trained on you – but you can’t see them, and it’s broad daylight and open veld.
Suddenly, their commander orders them to rise, and what was grass just seconds earlier reveals the team with their backpacks and rifles.
The Counter Poaching Unit (CPU) at the Madikwe Game Reserve have undergone special training to take the fight to the poachers, at a time when the latest figures from the Department of Environmental Affairs show that 746 rhinos have been poached this year.
The Ichikowitz Family Foundation has brought in the experience of Alan Ives – a former British Special Forces soldier – to train the CPU at the reserve, and the foundation has also equipped them with full camouflage uniforms and weaponry.
According to Ives, who has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little difference from the combat he experienced in war and the fight against poaching.
“It’s exactly the same, the only difference is there is no artillery or air support,” he said, adding that the techniques he teaches are the same that would be taught to soldiers.
Just a few months ago, some of the CPU members didn’t even have hiking boots to trek up and down the hills of Madikwe.
One of the CPU members, Moosa Maluka, said he had to stitch his takkies back together at the end of each training day.
“It was difficult. I was full of blisters every day. These new shoes have made a big, big difference,” he said.
The CPU showed off their skills on Friday, including their ability to disappear into the terrain within just 15 seconds.
Before Ives arrived, the team were also struggling to shoot a target from 25m away. To prove what sharpshooters they had become, one member nailed a practice target from 650m away without a scope.
“When I first met these guys, they were a ragtag bunch. So to see where they are now, it’s incredible,” said Eric Ichikowitz, the director of the foundation.
The intensity of Ives’s training was much higher than many of the CPU members had experienced before, but they still speak fondly of it.
“I was like ‘I’m gonna die’, all of my body was in pain,” said Colman Mgwenya, a childhood friend of Maluka.
“But I just wanted to train more, I never thought of quitting,” he said.
“People are still saying this isn’t a low-level war. It’s not, it’s a full-out war,” said Declan Hofmeyr, the operations manager at the reserve. – The Star
l Brendan Roane was a guest of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation at the Madikwe Game Reserve on October 10 and 11.