WATCH: On the hunt - US military vets join the fight against rhino poachers

07 December 2016 - 18:51
By Graeme Hosken

Catching poachers is something of a mind game, writes Graeme Hosken

They crouch and wait. Imprinted in the soft sand before them are the tell-tale signs of poachers - a rifle barrel, two footprint sets and the outline of a man lying down. There are whispers close by as Thokozani waits in ambush, rifle cocked.

He and Ryno van Dyk form part of an anti-poaching unit that has tracked the poachers - code named "Tom" and "Jerry" - for hours. Tom is crafty, he disguises his footprints with socks pulled over his shoes, says Thokozani, who does not want his surname to be used.

It's hot. The sun has scorched the Limpopo bushveld and forced game to alter their behaviour as they seek food. This desperation aids the poachers who are able to get close to the animals, especially the rhino that have become accustomed to the sound of vehicles farmers use to deliver food.

The sound of a branch cracking grabs Thokozani and Van Dyk's attention.


"Freeze," screams Van Dyk as they raise their rifles.

An American voice suddenly booms from behind a bush. "And the other poacher? Where is he?" asks former US Marine Corps sniper Lynn Westover, ending the training scenario.


Westover and Lucky, the pseudonym of a former US army officer and undercover police drug enforcement agent, have monitored Thokozani and Van Dyk since they started tracking. It's their job to ensure the skills they and 28 other game rangers learn are hammered home so they survive Africa's war on poachers.

"The other team has him," replies Van Dyk.

The training is paying dividends.


Within the first two days of last month's training session, eight poachers were arrested by rangers on the course. They were caught pretending to cut grass next to a nature reserve. Pangas, a gun and a stolen bakkie were recovered hidden in bushes.

Westover and Lucky, who have done multiple combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, are part of VetPaw, a team of US military veterans deployed in Africa to train game rangers to combat poachers.


Through the South African anti-poaching organisation Boots on the Ground, VetPaw is training both private and government anti-poaching units.

The training involves days of classwork before rangers are taught how to look for clues left by poachers. Classes include lessons in human terrain mapping and situational awareness.

Human terrain mapping was developed by the US army to help commanders understand people in the areas they were deployed to, and to improve intelligence gathering.


Westover, VetPaw's human terrain mapping director, said mapping helped rangers understand poachers.

"Situational awareness training helps rangers recognise anomalies in their environment. Rangers are taught to recognise signs to prepare themselves from walking into ambushes."

Lucky said: "We teach rangers how to use clues to predict a poacher's behaviour, to give them a head start when it comes to making potentially life-altering decisions while out in the bush."