Home to about 90 percent of the world’s rhinos, South Africa is the epicentre of a devastating poaching crisis that shows little sign of abating. The latest statistics show an average poaching rate of three rhinos each day. We sent our camera crew out to the frontlines of this conflict to follow a specialist canine unit tasked with protecting these threatened animals. Rhino Fortress follows an anti-poaching team and its specially trained dogs as they face armed poachers, dangerous wildlife and an unforgiving landscape.

Watch the full series below. And keep scrolling for a first-hand written account of the filming journey in the words of one of our cameramen.

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As a cinematographer, storytelling and filmmaking go hand in hand for me. I've always had a passion for conservation, preserving our wild spaces and saving our wildlife from greed. If my work doesn't make a difference ... what's the point?

Early last year, a Facebook page caught my eye: the group, Pit-Track, is an anti-poaching unit that utilises dogs to protect wild species. One morning an update on their page stopped me cold. It was a video showing the day the team arrived on site to witness the carnage of two poached rhinos. The clip touched me deeply – I saw slaughtered animals and I saw soldiers in the rain acting selflessly to protect the three remaining rhinos that call the reserve home.

Pit-Track team member Carl (left), and Floris (right), from ACPF, track rhinos through the reserve on a day-time shift. Image: Colour Of Light Photography/André Branco

I found myself wanting to be a part of what Pit-Track was doing; I wanted to tell their story and show the world what's happening on the ground in South Africa's wildlife reserves. So I got in touch with Carl – one of the Pit-Track team members – who encouraged me to pay them a visit. We made a date and I booked my ticket.

This was a different sort of shoot for me – not the traditional tripod-and-backpack setup that I'm used to. This shoot was going to involve long days in the bush, which could bleed late into the next morning. I needed to be prepared.

My first stop was an army surplus store, where I found some webbing and camo gear, perfect for carrying batteries, cards, protein bars, a three-litre hydration pack, gloves, a balaclava, a knife and a can of food – pretty much everything I would need for 24 hours in the bush. I also invested in a bulletproof vest (just in case!). I felt confident, but at the same time, there was a sense that I was staring down a deep, dark well. The purchase of the bulletproof vest had put everything into perspective for me: this reserve had the potential to turn into a war zone at any moment, and I would be in the thick of it. But I couldn't back out – I wouldn't let myself.

Carl picked me up from the airport and we went straight to the bush camp. It was exactly as I had imagined: not much more than operational gear, tents, a campfire and lots of mean-looking service dogs. I put my stuff down in a tent that had been allocated to me and shortly afterwards a uniform was thrust into my hands. I had begun a secret dream of mine: to be on the ground with an anti-poaching unit during active operations.

Carl and Floris out in the field with one of the team's specially trained dogs. Image: Colour Of Light Photography/André Branco

“I watched them walk off into the gloom. For the next 12 hours, they would be following rhinos through this unpredictable terrain in complete darkness.”

We spent the day guarding the rhinos. These behemoths are quite grumpy and can move at an astonishing speed. I had to dig deep into my bush-skills box on that first day to keep up, constantly reminding myself to look for cover when walking, always paying attention to the wind direction and trying to make as little noise as possible. The day grew old while we followed those rhinos, and by the end of it, we had succeeded – they were still breathing.

Eventually, we swapped out with the anti-poaching team who were taking over the night shift. As we drove away, I watched them walk into the gloom. It blew my mind that for the next 12 hours they would be following rhinos through this unpredictable terrain in complete darkness.

That first experience allowed me to record some compelling moments on film, but what I wanted was to take my camera further, to capture the real grit of this incredibly dangerous job: nothing scripted, just men risking their lives to keep animals safe, while at the same time wishing no harm on anything or anyone. Little did I know I was about to get my wish.

Anti-poaching dog "Koa" poses for the camera. Image: Colour Of Light Photography/André Branco

That night, the team leaders were sitting around a fire at base camp, working their way through a well-earned meal, when a call came in from one of the teams at the main gate to the reserve. A suspicious vehicle had been spotted, and the crew had heard voices and gunshots. It was all systems go. Before I knew it, equipment was being grabbed, guns were being loaded, and Diego the pit bull was geared up for action.

Everyone piled into the team's vehicle and we made off into the reserve. I was in the back, holding on for dear life with one hand and trying to film with the other while getting smashed into the side of the truck, as you'd expected when racing on dirt roads in the darkness. But it didn't matter: I was there, in the action.

Finally, we arrived. Everyone disembarked and we moved to the spot where the shots had been heard. I was immersed in filming, which seemed to dilute the danger of the situation. Floris, a member of fellow anti-poaching organisation Africa Counter Poaching Federation (ACPF), reacted to something up ahead, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the beam of his headlamp jerk suddenly. I'd just begun moving towards him, cautiously, when the silence was pierced by the deafening explosion of gunfire. Shots rang out from the darkness in our direction. I dropped to the floor and scrambled as fast as I could towards Floris, where I met Carl with Diego, who'd also dashed for cover.

Although it felt like hours passed, it was all over as soon as it had begun. We met up at the car afterwards for a nerve-calming cigarette. My relationship with Carl and Floris changed that night: I'd shown I had what it took to follow them into any situation, and from that moment onwards, I felt a part of the team.

My relationship with the dogs was also shifting. I'd initially perceived them as aggressive attack dogs and was nervous to approach them, but I soon realised there was an almost puppy-like nature beneath that menacing appearance. After the occasional long and freezing night in the bush, Diego would appear in my tent, insisting on crawling into my sleeping bag and cuddling up next to me – not the most comfortable sleeping arrangement, but he was warm and the nights were cold. My morning coffee, meanwhile, was enjoyed with Hulk, a South African mastiff, at my side, who would make a show of "protecting" me from anyone walking past.

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Sloppy affection from "Hulk", the South African mastiff. Image:

The routines of daily life in the bush began to take shape. I learned very quickly to fill up my hydration pack every time we left base camp (it was a tough lesson!). As for food, there was usually a fire burning, and breakfast typically consisted of a warmed-up can of baked beans – unless an emergency call from the field operators came through on the radio while we were still asleep. Lunch was a protein bar, and dinner ... well, sometimes dinner just wasn't part of the plan. When it was, canned sausages and spaghetti were top of the menu. Even instant noodles became a treat. 

And my food was in demand from other creatures, too – including the field mice that constantly raided my tent, eating their way through clothes and almost every bit of food that wasn't canned. They didn't seem at all bothered when their looting was interrupted by a disgruntled human: they would casually depart through the hole they'd made in the side of my tent (a hole that turned my sleeping quarters into a very dusty desert-storm set on windy nights).

Wildlife encounters weren't just of the small and furry variety, either. One night up on an observation post, a bit of rustling behind me morphed into the bellowing grunt of a hippo, sending me creeping speedily back down the hill, looking over my shoulder the whole way. (Surprisingly, the dogs didn't react to the sound at all.)

On a few occasions, the rhino herd we were protecting would split up, and additional teams were needed to follow them. Carl and I would always go out together, walking in excess of ten kilometres a night to make sure the precious pachyderms were safe. The bush comes alive after dark, and it's amazing to see how an anti-poaching operator and his dog navigate this unpredictable territory together. The canine would constantly signal in the direction of any wild animals, letting Carl know if there was danger up ahead.

Hand signals allow the team to communicate in silence as they track suspected poachers through the reserve. Image: Colour Of Light Photography/André Branco

One evening, we found ourselves surrounded by a herd of wildebeest. The odd-looking ungulates came charging past and I could actually feel the ground shaking. There were so many animals that I couldn't figure out in which direction they had come from, or where they were running to. But during all the commotion, Diego was calm and quiet as a mouse.

Carl's determination to keep hot on the heels of the rhinos was incredible during those night missions. On one occasion, we'd been tracking the resident bull for what seemed like hours, and eventually spotted his spoor on a gravel road. We walked on quietly, following the rhino's trail. The path curved in the distance and a small dead shrub appeared on the bend; the bull was just on the other side. Two unwelcome humans had inadvertently stumbled right onto him – and he wasn't too happy to see us! We were forced to play a bit of "hide and seek" with the huge animal in the darkness, which made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Diego, however, did not make a sound, once again. Eventually the rhino lost interest, leaving us free to back away safely. 

My time with the Pit-Track team was coming to an end – and with it came a sense that I had documented something pretty incredible. Living in the bush with only very basic provisions is tough, and I'd gained insight into what anti-poaching operators go through on a daily basis. Most of all, I'd witnessed men putting their own needs aside to keep our wild heritage safe: it's not glamorous work, it's not pretty, and it takes a very special kind of person to do it. More than once, these men and dogs risked their very lives to keep the rhinos in their charge alive. 

The skull of a rhino poached on the reserve in December 2016 stands as a poignant monument at the entrance to the anti-poaching team's bush camp. Image: Colour Of Light Photography/André Branco

Top header images: Colour Of Light Photography/André Branco