2013 07 05 Economist Michael Interview 03

Over the past several years, South Africa's rhino poaching problem has turned into a full-blown crisis. Last year, the country lost more than a thousand rhinos to poachers, their hacked-off horns destined mostly for consumption in Asia as an ingredient in various traditional medicines. Those of us who experience this crisis through news reports, documentaries and conservation campaigns can only imagine what it is like be fighting the war against poaching on the ground. But for Sheelagh Antrobus, the coordinator of Project Rhino, an NGO dedicated to rhino conservation in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal, the immense difficulties, frustrations and horrors of this conflict are a daily reality. Recently, she shared some of those personal experiences with us. This is what she had to say: 

Yesterday I gave in to anger and asked, "How many of the bastards did you kill?" 

Sometimes – make that many times – I wish I could be Maverick in Top Gun, zooming in with guns blazing, an 80s rock song providing a blood-thumping backdrop to a Hollywood-style good-vs-bad orgy of blood and guts that saves thousands of rhinos from an excruciating death. In a different version of that daydream, I am the female version of Chuck Norris, dishing out high-fives as I walk into the sunset having saved a species from extinction. 

But in real life this will never happen - sorry to burst the dreams of armchair activists. The poaching war is dirty, secretive, driven by money and corruption, as insidious as a cancer, and obscured by things as ordinary as trees with leaves. After four years in this wildlife war, I still discover things that astound me: it’s a 3D jigsaw puzzle that changes shape daily. 

And that's why yesterday I gave in to my anger and asked: "How many of the bastards did you kill?!" The rhino security officer on the other end of the phone line was shocked. "You know we can’t do that, Sheelagh!" he replied. My furious answer: "Then it's time we did!"

The softer side of me utterly rejects the growing suspicion that aggression is the only way to fight back. "Violence begets violence" is the phrase my soul whispers to me in the small hours of the night. As I search for answers, images of safe, healthy rhinos drift through my mind's eye, their horns intact. I know that changing beliefs and mindsets is the real solution to this crisis ... but this is the hardest battle to fight.

“Rhino poaching is an international wildlife crime: you have no idea how far and deep its tentacles reach. And when you do, your blood runs cold.”

The edges get blurred all too easily. Rhino poaching is an international wildlife crime: you have no idea how far and deep its tentacles reach. And when you do, your blood runs cold. I fear we'll never get the political and law enforcement support needed to stop it.

So much of the work I do is not dramatic – it doesn't involve catching poachers or communing with wildlife in the African bush. Much of my time is spent on the computer or phone: endless emails and calls, inspiring those removed from the real battlefield to help us, finding new ways to touch hearts and minds.

We’re weary. It’s been four years already ... as long as the First World War. Our troops are in a different type of trench war, one that is spreading fast throughout Africa. We’re fighting not just to save the rhino, but for something much bigger. At the same time, we’re fighting to change laws and human understanding too.

Rhino Tracker April 10 05 2014
The poaching figures this year are grim - by early April, 233 rhinos had been killed by poachers across the country.

The weariness that comes with seeing no light at the end of the tunnel diminishes our hope and our determination. Just like in a military war, days and months of desperation have made us feel like we are a small handful of Davids facing millions of Goliaths. Who am I – a simple woman and mother, inexpert and with no influence in the murky worlds of politics, crime, intelligence and terrorism – to speak out?

Sometimes it seems like we're fighting to save the very soul of humanity. That might sound overly dramatic to you, but I’ve seen it firsthand: the frenzied, vicious, bestial attacks to bring a beautiful animal to its knees for nothing more than greed. 

And that's why the violent solution beckons. But I’m afraid of what I could become if I too gave in to the anger.

I know what is right. But I’m tired of playing by the rules.