Last Word: Otch Otto

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It was a normal counter-poaching day. At first light the overnight incursion track reports were collected on the domain awareness system, pursuit was immediate, and interception calculations of poacher intent were calculated. The helicopter pilot was having coffee in the briefing room, the rapid response rangers (R3) were chatting under the jackalberry tree, and the dog team (DT) was on its way with a line dog, panting in anticipation.

Today you eat the badger, tomorrow the badger eats you. I remember an afterwork game drive when I came across an African rock python that had ambushed a honey badger. I often drive at dusk to see honey badgers and civets. The demise of a rarity like a honey badger by a python was uncommon and special. I parked to experience the event and only left when it was too dark to follow the badger feeding on the python, after having wheeled himself out of the snake’s grip.

The day ahead would be the same as that game drive. Rangers often have the opportunity to be successful and a simple tweak can turn a perfectly executed pursuit into a lemon. Poachers get away, whether by circumstance, weather, terrain, distance or depth – just like the bounce of the ball in a rugby match. Sometimes the magic wand of destiny waves over the R3 and everything goes right. These events come in packages, with concurrent close shaves that test their resilience and exhaust veterans. However, the holder of the ‘Bush Wand of Justice’ loves persistence and dedication, so when we succeed, we maintain momentum and often strike several times in a row.

The field ranger in charge of the chase spotted fresh tracks ahead of the entry point, and the track description matched the report, complete with a rhino poaching movement pattern and team composition. The dog was in the chopper before the pilot completed the pre-flight check.

The helicopter was dispatched with an R3 DT combination and an open seat for the ranger who had taken the operation this far on the ground. The commanding ranger was collected in the field, the dog dropped on the forward track and the R3 team remained in the helicopter to be dropped near the poachers to make their acquaintance. The dog and his handler found the location quickly, but the helicopter could not land. It was dense bush with no opening. It is not common for even the most experienced to observe poachers from the air. But there they were, running east, then west then north, then in circles.

Common practise with a visual is to circle in proximity over the area. We were barking with no teeth and the R3 team could not be dropped. The ranger called for suppression and target retention and the pilot responded in an icy voice: “Until we run out of fuel?”

With a chopper full of experience and nothing else to do, a brief conference ensued. And then the badger knew how to eat the python.

The helicopter lifted slightly, rolled into a circular pattern and one ranger spoke over the sky-shout. “We have you and will get you. Refrain from resisting arrest or your road ahead will be very rocky. Now stand still and listen. I am going to drop three pairs of handcuffs. You will put all your weapons on a heap where I drop your newly acquired jewellery.” Then he made the historical statement: “Now, go cuff yourself, place the keys on the weapon pile, retreat on the game path towards the hill and wait for the dog you hear approaching. Do nothing silly… see you at the vehicle. Hurry!”

So the badger licked its lips, said go cuff yourself, and walked off into the distance.

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