Inspiring Change | Making History in Anti Poaching Efforts
Dr Lynne MacTavish’s work has influenced many across the world. As operations manager of Mankwe Wildlife Reserve, she has given 20 years of major contributions to wildlife conservation in South Africa. Besides helping her father run the reserve, Lynne is the Principal Investigator onsite for Earthwatch, has co-authored 17 publications, coordinates visiting students and Earthwatch groups and rehabilitates orphaned animals in need.
The dedication, love and strength she and her team have for wildlife conservation led them, earlier in 2020, to being part of one of the largest rhino conservation efforts in history. Pilanesberg National Park is the first national park ever to use the anti poaching technique of trimming the horns of all their White and Black Rhino.
This interview focuses on what anti poaching efforts are like as a conservation career choice.
How did it feel to be part of one of the largest Rhino conservation efforts in history?
It was a privilege to be part of a conservation effort where you knew you were saving hundreds of rhinos’ lives. It is always a bittersweet feeling when you trim a rhino’s horn, as you feel that you are messing with nature. However, it is an amazing feeling watching them wake up afterwards knowing that you have given that rhino a much better chance at survival. I would much rather see a rhino with a shorter horn than a brutally killed rhino, knowing how that animal had suffered at the hands of poachers.
Although horn trimming may look painful or traumatic for the rhino, it is not. Rhino horn is made from Keratin, the same material making up our hair and fingernails. The procedure is the same as clipping your nails and causes the rhino no pain when cut above the growth plate.
Current and ongoing studies show no lasting effects on stress levels, they just wake up with a different view as there is no horn.
What other measures have reserves taken to reduce poaching?
Bushmeat poaching is a big problem, escalating during the lockdown. Our incursions have tripled over the last 5 months. The reason is growing unemployment with desperate people turning to crime and poaching as an easy option for survival as poaching is not a prioritised crime in South Africa.
Most reserves have established anti-poaching teams to patrol 24 hours a day. Anti-poaching K9’s are working dogs that have proven an extremely effective deterrent and are useful when tracking and apprehending poachers.
Fence patrols are also conducted day and night to look for entry points and any suspicious activity. This is known as active policing which is better than a reactive response. Anti-poaching now consumes 65% of our budget.
What is it like to be directly involved in daily anti poaching endeavours?
Anti-poaching efforts are a 24/7 job. The patrols have to go out in all weather conditions. Poachers often come in bad weather, presuming the team is taking shelter from rain or extreme cold. It is stressful because there is always the threat of driving into poachers or finding a poached rhino. Syndicates are heavily armed and extremely dangerous; you can never let your guard down or become complacent.
Public holidays and special occasions have to be sacrificed as these are high risk periods. Full moon is extremely high risk, with an escalation of incursions. Poachers can move around more easily in the moonlight, so we intensify our efforts during this time.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best part of my job is reserve management. Watching the wildlife population increase and thrive is very rewarding. Especially being able to protect and increase the numbers of an endangered species.
I also enjoy teaching and inspiring about 300 students a year in the hope that they will become wildlife ambassadors and conservationists.
The worst part of my job is dealing with poaching and the cruelty that it brings. Every day hard decisions need to be made in order to safeguard the animals. It is an all-consuming job but it definitely has huge rewards and I would not change it for anything.
What skills are needed to be successful in anti poaching and conservation work?
Conservation jobs such as team supervisors, scouts, trackers, K9 handlers and trainers are normally awarded to people with training and/or experience in nature conservation, wildlife management and an ecology-based BSc, Masters or PhD. For these kinds of conservation jobs; the best way is for applicants to do voluntary work on a working reserve in order to gain experience in the field and see where they excel.
Anti-poaching jobs are normally awarded to people who have taken an anti-poaching training course. It has long hours, often at night and involves long periods away from family. It requires someone that is both dedicated and fearless.
What advice would you give those starting a career in conservation?
Working on a reserve requires a passion for living and working outside, often in very isolated conditions.It is also hard physical work, with extremely long hours but has so many rewards. It is an extremely worthwhile job where you can actually see the difference you make and no day is ever the same.
I would suggest studying a relevant course and getting as much hands on experience as you can. Get involved in all aspects of conservation to see what area you enjoy the most. Volunteering where you can fully experience the role will help you decide before committing to it as a career.