World Youth Rhino Summit 2014 09 23
Image: World Youth Rhino Summit, via Facebook.

Reporting from the first-ever World Youth Rhino Summit has been a moving experience for the Earth Touch team. More than 140 conservation leaders (aged 15-17) from over 20 countries gathered in South Africa's Hluhluwe-iMfalozi Game Reserve to learn, share ideas and spread awareness about rhino conservation – and to move closer to finding workable solutions to stop poaching and wildlife crime.

After an amazing opening ceremony (complete with Zulu dancing and drumming), the delegates were in for debate sessions and discussions, as well as presentations by several high-profile speakers, including conservationist Dr Paula Kahumbu and wildlife veterinarian Dr William Fowlds. Delegates also got the opportunity to visit the victims of poaching, both injured adult rhinos and young rhinos orphaned by poaching.

Aside from the summit's emotional toll, sweltering temperatures (topping 35°C or 95°F) were a challenge for everyone. But for local conservation organisation Project Rhino, the heat wave presented a very special opportunity: delegates would get to witness a very real demonstration of what being an anti-poaching ranger is like.

Summit-goers were loaded into vehicles and taken to the game reserve's airstrip (an exposed strip of land with no shade and no trees). Anti-poaching rangers don't get the liberty of taking breaks just because it's too hot outside (or too dark ... or too cold). Poachers often take advantage of challenging conditions out in the field – so it's at times like these that rhinos are most at risk.

Though this search mission was only a demonstration, it was performed with real guns, real machinery and in real time.

Our producer Kirsten Horne recounts.

Today on this airstrip, this is how things go down:

Lawrence Munro, the head of a local anti-poaching unit, gets a call on his radio from rangers patrolling out in the field. They've spotted two suspicious characters, possibly armed, in the vicinity.

Lawrence radios an anti-poaching aircraft in the area, giving the pilot the location details and asking for an aerial view. Suddenly, from behind us, a low-flying aircraft appears overhead ... and the radio crackles again as the pilot relays his clipped message:

"I've got visual on suspects."

It's the cue Lawrence needs to contact the helicopter. The distinctive sound of chopper blades is deafening as it sweeps in at high speed, barely clearing our group below. It's fast. It's furious. And it's dramatic. It flies over the poachers, 'herding' them in one direction.

When the poachers are in an accessible position, the chopper lands and heavily armed rangers jump out and give chase.

There's screaming and shouting and in no time at all the rangers have the poaching suspects on the floor, searching them for weapons. The men are disarmed and an axe and rifle are recovered. They're handcuffed and loaded onto a truck. From here, the legal process will take its course.  

Yes, this was just a demonstration. But the radio signals were real. The aircraft were real. And the weapons the 'poachers' were carrying were real.

This is exactly how things play out in real-life scenarios – and it's a stark reminder to the delegates that rhino poaching is not just a fight. It's a war.

poaching speach-2014-9-20
Lawrence Munro, the head of a local anti-poaching unit, gets a call on the radio from the field rangers. Image: Caio Da Rocha & Michaela Sørensen.
poaching plane-2014-9-20
Lawrence radios the pilot for visual confirmation. Image: Caio Da Rocha & Michaela Sørensen.
poaching smoke bomb-2014-9-20
Discerning poachers from rangers is often impossible to do from the sky. An orange smoke signal tells pilots where on-foot rangers are. Image: Caio Da Rocha & Michaela Sørensen.
poaching run-2014-9-20
Helicopter backup arrives. Image: Caio Da Rocha & Michaela Sørensen
poaching chase-2014-9-20
The helicopter pilots herd the poachers towards a suitable landing place. Image: Caio Da Rocha & Michaela Sørensen.
poaching caught 2014-9-10
When the poachers are in an accessible position, the chopper lands and heavily armed rangers continue the chase on foot. Image: Caio Da Rocha & Michaela Sørensen.