Rhino protectors’ new approach: befriending the poachers

Why We Wrote This

Amy Bracken knew her cousin Matt had long been trying to stop rhino poachers in Africa. When at a family reunion he said he was organizing soccer games for poaching communities, she was intrigued.

Amy Bracken
Orlando Antonio Cossa coached the 2018 winner of the Rhino Cup Champions League, 12 teams that play in Mozambique. The soccer league, supported by sponsors and the Wild and Free Foundation, aims to promote protection of rhinos.

On a grassless soccer field, a few dozen players are kicking up dust clouds in elated dance. They’re celebrating at the end of an awards ceremony for a tournament that brought rare excitement to this remote stretch of savanna.

As fans swarm the teams, one out-of-towner sits alone in a pickup truck. Vincent Barkas helped set this tournament in motion, but today he’d rather not show his face. People might recognize him, he says, and associate him with something they don’t like.

Mr. Barkas runs a company that patrols private game parks to protect animals, including rhinos, from poachers. And some of those poachers may be in the crowd today – fans, or players with medals hanging from their necks.

Just across the border in South Africa’s vast Kruger National Park and adjacent private reserves, poaching is a high-stakes venture. Guard units are equipped with military technology, and encounters with poachers sometimes turn fatal, as Barkas knows well. He is a prominent operator in this battle, but has become sold on the idea of a more peaceful approach – which is how he wound up here, at the end of this six-month, 12-team tournament, complete with uniforms and a trophy.

At first glance this soccer league, which Barkas helped create with the nonprofit Wild and Free Foundation, has nothing to do with those dangers across the border. Soccer games can’t substitute for the wealth that poaching can bring these rural villages, where job opportunities are scarce, and the tourism income of game reserves is just out of reach. But in poaching hotspots across the region, many conservationists argue that the standard “guns and jails” approach to protecting endangered animals is inadequate. Forging trust and communication with local communities, they say – even through something as simple as soccer – may help save people and rhinos alike.

Years ago, my cousin Matt Bracken worked in safari tourism and became passionate about the plight of the rhino. So he signed up for Barkas’s grueling six-week ranger boot camp, and videographer Rohan Nel documented the experience. Afterward, Matt and Rohan created Wild and Free and started providing boot camp scholarships for underprivileged locals.

When my cousin told me at a family reunion that his newest endeavor involved soccer, it seemed a complete reversal of the battlefield approach I had thought he’d embraced. I wanted to know more. And that’s how I find myself on the edge of this dirt field in Mozambique among cheering and dancing fans.

Dangerous atmosphere    

A rhino’s horn can bring in thousands of dollars – a gobsmacking sum in Mozambique, which the United Nations ranks among the 10 least developed countries, and where unemployment hovers around 25 percent.

Here along the border, many locals were driven off their land when the game parks were created – and hunting suddenly became “poaching.” Today, they are largely shut out of the tourism wealth the parks reap, and a common park policy is not to hire people from nearby communities for many positions, on the idea that they might betray the wildlife’s locations to poachers. Most children have never laid eyes on the big-game animals foreign tourists come to see. In his talks with poachers and their families, Barkas says, one lesson sticks out. “Their biggest complaint wasn’t about money, wasn’t about being poor. It was about [not] being included.”

When asked what the nearby parks have done for the local communities, some local leaders answer, curtly and forcefully, “Nothing.”

It’s easy for poachers from Mozambique to slip into parks across the border, where animals are more plentiful. In South Africa, the killing of rhinos shot up – from 13 in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014, and more than a thousand were killed annually for the next three years. This explosion stems from the decimation of rhinos in other parts of the continent (the last known male northern white rhino died in Kenya in 2018) and increased demand in Asia for ornamental status symbols and mythical elixirs. In 2018, rhino killings fell by a quarter, which some attribute in part to more sophisticated poacher and animal tracking, while also pointing out that there are simply fewer rhinos left to kill. 

Authorities do not officially release data on poacher deaths, according to Annette Hubschle, a criminologist and sociologist based in Cape Town, South Africa, but a Kruger source told her that about 200 suspected poachers were killed in the park between 2010 and 2014. Mozambican sources believed the number to be much higher, she says.

Meanwhile, at least eight park rangers have died on the job in South Africa since July 2016, according to the Game Rangers Association of Africa, including one who was killed by a poacher. As rhino killings escalated, the response was increasingly “hard core,” says Dr. Hubschle. “Basically, people were trained in paramilitary tactics.” Increasingly, conservationists and observers talked about a “rhino war.”

Barkas was part of that. Twenty-six years ago, after serving in a tracking unit of the South African military, he created ProTrack, which he says was his country’s first private anti-poaching force. His workers are armed, and trained in tracking and combat. Today ProTrack’s Rhino Task Team patrols, gathers intelligence, and helps police with arrests and investigations in the private parks that border both Kruger and Mozambique. Barkas says that since ProTrack began, its rangers have been implicated in the killings of four poachers. He also says nine ProTrack rangers have died on the job, at least one of them killed by a poacher.

Barkas maintains that “[you] have to have that militant approach” when facing the real risk of an animal’s extinction. But the threat of violence or jail alone, he says, can’t protect the rhino.

Amy Bracken
ProTrack recruits who make it through a rigorous six-week training course are prepared for possible confrontations with poachers. The anti-poaching work of each team includes weapons handling and night duty in the parks.

A turn to other tactics

Four years ago, Barkas was asked by an employee of South Africa National Parks if he could help a Mozambican community that was home to many people who poached in the vicinity that ProTrack patrols. Meeting with a group of rhino hunters, Barkas asked one, “How can we stop people poaching rhinos? And he said to me, ‘soccer,’ which I thought was a little bit bizarre,” Barkas recalls. “But I said, ‘OK, I’ll see what I can do.’ ”

Together with Wild and Free, Barkas helped bring soccer equipment to some villages. Eventually, that led to the Rhino Cup Champions League, comprising 12 teams from nine communities, dusty and quiet towns where rush hour might mean the evening herding of cattle past municipal buildings. 

“If anybody had told me [30 years ago] I’d be doing what I’m doing now, I would have said, ‘No, my friend, you’ve lost it,’ ” Barkas says with a husky laugh.

Under apartheid, Barkas had served in one of the few integrated units of the South African Army, and he says he took a colorblind approach to building his own company. At the same time, he did view poachers through a racial lens.

“I was a white South African brought up in apartheid,” he says. “As far as I was concerned, blacks were responsible for all our problems. Where we put them to live, they destroyed the land. The fact that they didn’t have electricity never crossed my mind; that’s why they chopped the trees down.”

Games with purpose

On the sidelines of the games, fans, players, and local leaders are cheering – and many insist the sport has reduced poaching, though its direct effect is hard to measure. Three women who hitched a minibus ride to the final yell their town name – “Sabie!” – from the sidelines. Like many other women here, they say they would join a female league.

Fenias Abel Bila, a new local political representative, is pleased with the soccer project, and he wants to see it stepped up, with the addition of a youth league and a women’s league. Soccer “makes people think twice about going in” to the park, Mr. Bila says. Participants in the league get some money – about $1,500 for the winning team, and smaller sums for the rest – but the prize money is not where the impact lies.

Money is a chief motivation for area poachers, explains Morris, a poacher from across the border who opened up on the condition that he’s identified by a pseudonym, but it’s when young men have nothing to do that they get recruited into the trade.

“When you’re sitting at home,” Morris says, “[your] friend comes with a vehicle [and says], ‘Hey, you’re sitting. What is the plan? We’ll go somewhere. Maybe we can have some money. Just for one time.’ ”

Relationship building

In Baptine and neighboring communities, the main concern is the ongoing poacher deaths by anti-poaching forces. Bila says three women recently came to him asking for jobs because they had lost their poacher husbands. It is not legal in Mozambique or South Africa for security forces to kill poachers, but they may avoid jail time if they can effectively claim self-defense.

Sports are hardly a quick fix to the problems of poaching and human deaths, Barkas acknowledges. “Soccer was actually more of [us saying], ‘Look, guys, we’re here to help. We want you to trust us.’ ”

ProTrack and the foundation are working on other community initiatives as well. Wild and Free organized a safari for Mozambican children last year, which they plan to repeat. And they’ve received funding for an agriculture irrigation project.

There are other examples of inclusive conservation initiatives, such as the Black Mambas, an unarmed ranger unit in a private South African game park, which is composed mostly of local women. But Hubschle believes conservation still leans too far in the direction of militarization and local exclusion. “The community approach,” she says, “is attractive because it’s proactive, it’s preventive, but it will take a very long time.”

Barkas agrees. He’s convinced that in the long run, outreach will have a more positive effect on people and animals alike than arrests can.

He recalls a recent trip to Mozambique where he met Max, now 3 years old. Max’s father is in jail in South Africa for rhino poaching. His mother spends long stints working hours away in the capital, Maputo, and in South Africa, leaving Max in the care of his blind grandmother and 9-year-old sister. 



“Conservation, wildlife has done nothing for that little boy,” Barkas says. “When he turns 16, his attitude is going to be, ‘The whites took my father away from me because he killed an animal.’ ” He’ll hate the rhino, Barkas says. Unless things change.

“Max is not going to be a poacher,” says Barkas. “Little Max is going to get a job. He’s not going be a statistic like his dad. That’s our goal.”

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