I was lucky to be charged by an elephant. Future generations may never get the chance.

By Mathilda de Villiers

There’s something about being mock charged by an elephant while you’re on foot in the wilderness, that just sits with you.

But how on earth, you may ask, did I get myself into that situation? I was working second-camera on a pilot episode for a documentary we were filming on one of the many trips to the Umbabat Game Reserve, bordering the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

On this particular day, roughly six years ago, I was following a game ranger on foot, filming him walking with his puppy around two bull elephants, when the charge came out of nowhere.
Once we were charged, we were trapped. Between these giants, situated in a river bed, and separated from the safety of the compound we had just trekked from. All I remember was my friend telling me to turn my camera off. We sneaked behind the bushes around the elephants and at one point he turned around to me and said, “when I run, you just keep up.” We made it back to safety after an exhilarating sprint past the elephants over the dried-out river bed. What ensued were hugs from my brother who had watched the whole situation play out.

And yes, I still have the footage. Somewhere on a hard drive.

On the next trip, I followed that same game ranger, and friend, into the bush tracking a leopard on foot. He saw some fresh tracks of a leopard who had recently chased its lunch across the road we were driving on. When he turned around and asked, “ok who’s coming with me to go check this out?” I was the only one who said yes.

I have no footage of this experience. Only a very vivid memory of walking through the thick bush, silently creeping along looking for those unique black spots. We never found the leopard but it was a thrilling experience, to say the very, very least.

Wild, raw and unadulterated

I was privileged enough to grow up in Southern Africa, frequenting the bush as I grew up and well into my twenties. I have many more stories of pretty insane wildlife encounters, including a leopard coming right up to our house one evening, a crazy honey badger eating our dinner and me almost becoming a hyena’s dinner. Oh, and I can’t leave out that one time a hippo almost toppled over my father’s canoe as we were cruising down the Zambezi River. That was one for the books.

I had a raw, unadulterated, upbringing in the bush that I know is pretty rare. Each memory is incredibly special and I have a natural comfort level in the wilderness, surrounded by these wild creatures. Being able to follow wild dogs, or painted dogs, as they are hunting is something that not a lot of people these days can bear witness to. I consider myself very lucky, as even seeing one in the wild is so rare today, because they are one of the most endangered species in the whole of Africa.

Since I’ve moved to Canada, however, I haven’t been to the bush, or on the so-called ‘safari’, in over three years. I miss it dearly. I know that, even in my lifetime, I will see a massive decline in the incredible wild creatures I have bared witness to in the Southern African wilderness.

The truth behind that dream safari

With this upbringing comes many memories, but also a sense of responsibility. Behind the scenes of the amazing landscapes and these animals, it isn’t as glamorous as it may seem.
If we’re talking about the current population of wildlife in the whole of Africa, there is just no comparison to what it was 100 years ago.

Imagine for a moment – hundreds of thousands of rhinos and lions and millions of elephants wandering across nearly every region of the continent. That was then.

Today, only a fraction of them remain.

The immense number of wild animals that used to roam our earth has been dropping ever since by massive proportions because of habitat loss, hunting and poaching. We, as humans, are responsible for the loss of a whopping 60 percent of our world’s mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since the 1970’s.

That’s only 39 years. Read that again. Let it sink in for a second.

But even in the darkest truths, there is hope. In the same breath, humanity can be responsible for the rescue of a dying species. One example is the mountain gorilla. In 2010, their population was dwindling with approximately 786 individuals left due to entanglement in hunting snares, disease transfer from humans and habitat loss. However, conservation efforts have been paying off and the population is slowly increasing with the most recent count seeing the total number of wild mountain gorillas reach above 1000 individuals.

Now let that sink in. We can, collectively, make a significant change.

Real talk

But, sadly, this incredible conservation success story is not the case for all animals. Many are facing extinction within the next few decades if conservation does not win. Whether it wins is up to us. Up to us mere humans. To do our part and to assist those who are doing their part to combat this rapid decline of wonderful animals on our earth.

As humans, we’ll pay the ‘big bucks’ to go and see these animals up close, live in their quarters and get up at the crack of dawn to watch the sun spill over the African plain towards us. But what happens when there are no more elephants to track? No more lions to drive up to while they are basking in the sun? Will we wake up then? When it’s too late?

Luckily, there are already many organizations doing their part towards conservation and raising awareness around what needs to be done to keep our animal population alive and well.

Conservation itself is a complicated issue with many factors. Having spoken to some of the people who spearhead a lot of projects in the bush in South Africa, I won’t be diving into those deeper issues and projects. There is a lot to say about it and there are a lot of opinions out there. I can only speak to what I have witnessed, and I’m choosing to highlight a few efforts out there. There are many, but we don’t have time to write or read an entire book-worth of content.

Fighting off poachers with drones

Today, the world of practical use of new technology is booming. It has pushed many people and organizations to the next level in their own work to keep up with the digital world. One way this has translated over into rhino conservation is using drones to fight off poachers across Africa.

If you’ve been living in the twenty-first century and have been following even a fraction of the news with half an eye, you would know about the speedy decline of rhinos because of poaching. But, this practice is nothing new. It dates back to 1970.

Today, it’s a massive market of almost $70 billion per year, with over 1,200 African rhinos killed by poachers in a single year, averaging roughly three per day.

Let’s be clear. This is a criminal activity that has gotten out of hand and it is difficult to keep track of and control over poachers that they have even started dehorning projects to protect the animals. Basically, this means that they remove their horns in a humane way so that the rhinos still survive, equally not becoming a target anymore. It’s radical, but that’s what it has come to.

And let’s be equally clear about why this madness even started. Rhino horn, primarily made out of keratin, is used in traditional Chinese medicine, but is also increasingly used to display a facade of wealth and success. There are theories, myths and opinions out there on this. But the basics of it boils down to – it’s being used for purposes that aren’t even proven to work.

There are programs in place where rangers on the ground are trained to fight against rhino poachers. It’s not for the faint of heart and it is not something that you come back from with the same mindset as you went in.

I have known people who have gone into that line of work and still, even with their efforts, haven’t made enough of a difference to ward off enough poachers. They still sneak into areas to hunt and kill for a prized possession so tainted.

Drones equipped with infrared cameras, GPS and thermal imaging, alongside the use of military-style computer analytics can help rhino conservation. These special drones allow rangers to be one step ahead of the poacher and get deployed to those specific areas to ward off any oncoming attacks that might occur.

Another way that drones can help is that they can help deter the animals from a certain area where the poaching risks are high. You can learn more about this in this article.

There are drawbacks, however. With the use of drones increasing across many different fields, many national parks have banned the use of drones. It’s also not a cheap feat to have drones with such extensive equipment on board as you also have to have a highly-skilled and trained pilot behind the controls.

All of this also costs money.

So is there really hope then? Yes. I have seen and I know of many people and organizations out there who spend their time and effort protecting and fighting for these animals. They can’t do it without the help of countless on-the-ground volunteers, donations and government funding. They can’t do it without a pure love for the animal they are rescuing.

Organizations working tirelessly on the frontlines include:

  • Save The Rhino
  • African Wildlife Foundation
  • Wildlife Act
  • World Wildlife Fund
  • Painted Dog Conservation

We can all do our part. And do be aware that the animals I have spoken about here are not the only ones that need our attention – there are many. In the end, a happier planet equals happier species that inhabit it. An end to a ridiculous ‘medicine’ trade, ends the rhino poaching war zone.