Wednesday, September 11, 2013

(THE SOUTH AFRICAN) ‘Poaching Wars’: Meet the men who risk their lives to protect rhinos

Rhino are being shot at a rate of more than two a day in South Africa, for the simple fact that rhino horn is valued at more per kilogram than gold. This ITV documentary goes to South Africa to meet the armed men employed to guard rhinos in the Kruger Park, as well as rhino owners who have resorted to unorthodox ways of protecting their animals, such as dehorning them or training elephants to track poachers.

By on 14 August, 2013 4:31 pm in Entertainment, Featured, Film & TV, News

Tom Hardy elephant (Medium)
In Poaching Wars With Tom Hardy, a two-part ITV documentary starting on 22 August, BAFTA award-winning actor Tom Hardy (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) travels to South Africa, Botswana and Tanzania to find out why poaching has reached crisis levels and to see for himself what can be done to stop the killing. Having heard some appalling stories about the poaching industry, Tom is galvanised into action.

“All over Sub-Saharan Africa, the poaching crisis is spreading like a plague. Cameroon, Chad, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have all seen large-scale elephant slaughter and throughout the rest of Africa, rhino and elephant are being killed in alarming numbers. The everyday effect of the poaching business on African wildlife is one of horror and cruelty that brutalises both the animals and the humans involved,” Tom notes.

“Like most of us I have a love for Africa’s magnificent animals. As a result I find it hard to stomach the poaching crisis sweeping the continent and pushing these amazing animals to the edge of extinction. Without doubt the rhino and elephant are facing extinction well within our lifetime and the war on poaching is being lost. I’m making these documentaries because it’s something practical I can do to ask some questions that need to be asked.”

He starts his journey in South Africa, where 80 percent of the world’s rhino are found. With rhino poaching on the increase, they’re in big trouble – 553 animals have already been poached since January, almost as many as were shot in the whole of 2012 (at least 600).

The killing is happening on such a massive scale that rhino are being shot at a rate of more than two a day, for the simple fact that rhino horn is valued at more per kilogram than gold.

For 20 years Miles Lappeman has been trying to address the balance by breeding rhino on his huge estate but in November 2012, a team of poachers breached his security fences and shot eight of his 22 animals.

Miles shows Tom the body of one of his dead rhino, shot dead by poachers although they never managed to get her magnificent horn, so it proved a waste of life by everybody’s standards. She was killed by a single shot, clearly by an experienced professional, ‘a person who knows exactly what they’re doing, equivalent to Navy Seals and SAS operatives’, according to Miles. “They’re not poachers, they’re rhino assassins,” he says.

Tom visits the Kruger Park, where most of South Africa’s rhino are found and where the highest kill rate occurs. He meets Vincent Barkas who runs an anti-poaching unit of 300 men that provides protection for animals in private game reserves. Vincent says, “When the poacher comes in, you’ll have one guy who does the shooting that’s got the hunting rifle. You might have another chap there to cut and carry the horns. And your third and fourth persons might be in possession of a military assault rifle, which they will use to confront the guards.”

Vincent’s team are trained to use military assault rifles and he admits that as a private company, being responsible for 33 military weapons sends a shiver up his spine. “The guys make a huge sacrifice. They’ve got no social life. They don’t earn a lot of money. They’re putting their lives on the line… these guys are being trained to be killers. In a democratic country like South Africa, we’re taking 19, 20-year-old kids and teaching them to use semi-automatic rifles, and I’m a private individual. I don’t represent the government. That tells me something’s out of control.”

Tom joins Vincent and his men deep in the bush for an anti-poaching training session, attempting to find three men in the middle of 900 hectares of veld. He also spends time with Tumi, one of Vincent’s most trusted men, who introduces Tom to his family and admits in some communities the poachers are considered heroes.

Tumi explains that he is under pressure to join the poachers, even by a government official. “He told me, I want a rhino horn, and if I can get it for him, he was gonna give me 500,000. I was tempted, but I started trying to show him my negatives, telling him, ‘Hey, I’m scared.’ But I can’t do it because they gonna catch me. They will know it’s me. Where will I put that money? I can’t take it to the bank. He says, ‘No, don’t worry. I’ll make you a contract. Prove it. You sign it. I get the money in your account. I’ll do that, easy. One time. Chop, chop.’”

When Tumi refused, the man threatened to kill everyone in his street, including his family, if he told anyone. As the father of a 14-month old girl, Tumi doesn’t want to get involved.

Next, Tom’s trek takes him to Johannesburg to see some alarming evidence of the international criminal gangs involved in poaching. The city is the major conduit for smuggled rhino horn on its way to South East Asia and Tom meets Julian Rademeyer, an award-winning journalist who has spent three years immersed in the world of the ivory trade. Tom learns about the horns being sold illegally on the black market in incredibly sophisticated, well-run operations, often believed to fund larger scale activity.

Julian explains, “If you look at the example of Somalia, you’ve seen al-Shabab using ivory to fund their operations. We’ve seen instances in Chad, for example, where armed militia men mow down elephants. The wildlife trade is an incredibly lucrative business, and it’s a great way to fund all of those activities… These are incredibly sophisticated, well run operations. You have untouchable kingpins in places like Vietnam and Laos. You’re talking about incredibly dangerous people who are prepared to kill and die for this prize.”

Tom also meets John Hume who has a radical solution to the poaching crisis and believes that dehorning a rhino is the only way to save it from poachers. John is the largest rhino owner in the world and claims he is driven to repopulate the species. All 850 of his rhino have been dehorned.

Another man fighting back is Sean Hensman, who is training elephants to track poachers, so that the hunted become the hunter. Sean’s elephants patrol his land using their phenomenal sense of smell to find poachers over huge spaces. The pads on their feet are so soft it makes them very difficult to be heard. Tom is keen to find out more but before agreeing to hide in the bush to put the elephant’s searching skills to the test, where he meets an elephant called Toshura up close and is completely overwhelmed by the experience, having never been that close to an elephant before.

Poaching Wars airs on ITV on Thursday 22 August from 9pm – 10pm.

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