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by Capt. Dave Lear

It’s been a gruesome campaign with no shortage of innocent victims. But as the long-running war against rhinoceros poachers in South Africa rages on, there is growing reason for hope. More boots will soon be on the ground as newly-trained field rangers venture into the bush on anti-poaching patrols on private game reserves where most of the rhinos live. Graduates of the Nkwe Tactical Training Academy in the Lapalala Wilderness will receive extensive instruction in wildlife management, surveillance, crime scene investigation and small arms tactics. It is the cornerstone of PROJECT: SAVE THE RHINO, which is funded by the Bisbee Fish & Wildlife Conservation Fund. The newly-completed NTTA academy will honor its first group of graduates on April 26, 2013.

“Rhino poaching has grown by 25 percent per year for the last four years, virtually doubling the losses since 2008,” says Wayne Bisbee, president of the Conservation Fund. “Poachers kill these threatened animals and cut off their horns to sell on the lucrative black market. By creating the NTTA, we’ll make the cost of getting those horns so high the poachers will go elsewhere. Deterrence is the key. We’ll be using the latest technology to train field rangers, and as an added benefit we are providing a viable career opportunity for local villagers and a positive economic impact to the region.”

When it reaches full capacity the academy will house and train 100 highly-qualified rangers each year with a comprehensive curriculum. The level of technical training and number of graduates is unprecedented and will have a lasting impact on anti-poaching efforts in South Africa. The paramilitary setting includes tent accommodations, foot lockers, a mess hall, shooting range and classrooms. Most of the hands-on training will be conducted in the rugged South African bush. The academy will be run by Simon Rood, who started the Nkwe (which means leopard in Afrikans) Wildlife & Security Services. With his former military background and long experience in wildlife security management, Rood is well-qualified to oversee the NTTA operation. Rood’s partner, Sergeant Major Boy John Mashabane, will be directly in charge of recruit training. Mashabane is another military veteran who spent 12 years working in Kruger Park with Jack Greeff, a well-known anti-poaching advocate.

“We initially recruited unemployed people from the rural areas around Giyani and Bushback Ridge,” Rood explains. “The training involves hardship, long hours, tough discipline and demanding physical requirements. It’s much more challenging than what meets the eye. But these dedicated and highly-motivated rangers are the champions in the rhino anti-poaching operations. We have not lost a single rhino to poaching since we started these tactical patrols and with the academy’s technological capabilities we’ll have an even stronger security presence.”

There are several phases in the academy curriculum. Any employee of a privately-owned reserve can take the short Rhino Monitor course to increase awareness of poaching activity and what to do when it is encountered. Field ranger recruits are screened and then trained extensively for six months. Upon successful completion, they receive government-recognized certification and go on to advance training in tactics and leadership. Thanks to Conservation Fund donations, recruits will receive state-of-the-art technical training and support.

“The academy will be among the first in the world to use the SMART software system, which was developed by a multi-group non-profit consortium. This new data base system will help measure, evaluate and improve the effectiveness of the wildlife patrols and conservation efforts,” Bisbee says. “We bought a system and the programmers will be on site training our staff how to use it. Our goal is to eventually provide SMART training to others, expand its overall capability and help spread this cutting-edge technology across the continent.”

Advanced recruits will also receive training on Laser Shot, a firearms simulator that will be the first in South Africa. Used by all branches of the military and law enforcement agencies throughout the United States, this realistic simulator will teach recruits marksmanship and target recognition before they are actually exposed to dangerous situations. Software is being developed to provide interactive training solutions tailored especially for conditions encountered in the remote South African bush.

Aerial surveillance and support capabilities are being added to aid NTTA in the fight. Light helicopters and unmanned drones with infrared and thermal cameras will be able to detect rhino poachers in remote areas and rapidly deploy rangers in response.

“We know what strategy is required for us to meet our training and ground operation objectives,” Rood says. “I am extremely optimistic about the success of PROJECT: SAVE THE RHINO. Our field rangers are the grunts on the ground and they’ve seen a big difference in equipment and support. They get good balanced meals three times a day. They’re highly motivated, work hard and go the extra mile. With the help of the Bisbee Fund and its donors, we will make a positive difference in rhino conservation.”

“Thanks to Simon and BJ’s skills and leadership, the academy will be turning out field rangers of the highest caliber,” Bisbee says. “It’s our task to provide the organization and funding levels to bring the fight to the poachers and stop this senseless slaughter. With our commitment, the regional coverage on NWSS private reserves will increase by 50 percent.”