Back in the summer of 2009, I spent a month as a volunteer on the Amakhala game reserve, just north of Port Elizabeth in Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.
There was a bunch of us, all ages and nationalities. Our home for the duration was the old Sandflats railway station in the township of Paterson, about a 25 minutes drive from the reserve.
Up at the crack of dawn - it was their winter so it was bloody freezing! - our first job of the day was to monitor lion activity. The reserve had acquired a small pride which was under observation in a quadrant of the reserve prior to being released into the greater reserve at a later date.
The main task was to see if the pride had made a kill during the night. If so, it meant the group was bonding and becoming used to its new environment. Working with our ranger guide, David, it was a great way to see the animals up close without having to be part of a tourist circuit.
Another task we were involved in was game counting for as well as lions, the reserve had a range of species including the other members of the big five: elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard.
Every so often we would spend an evening in the reserve’s vehicle conducting ‘poacher patrols’ We never came across any nefarious activities but game-watching at night was a revelation. On more than one occasion we were seriously spooked by rhinos the size of a small tank barrelling out of the bush in front of us, inches away from a collision.
Being chased by them, and on one occasion by the male lion, who took exception to our proximity, generated an exceptionally high pucker factor, which I would not wish to experience again any time soon.
At the time, though, I think we all felt that the patrols were arranged more for our entertainment rather than as a practical exercise.
Little did we know.
A year after my visit I received a note from the tour company that had arranged my trip - Worldwide Experience - to tell me that two of the reserve’s white rhino bulls had been killed by poachers. It was devastating news. I’ve been interested in the so-called Rhino Wars ever since. To put things into perspective, last year - 2015 - South Africa alone lost 1300 rhino to poachers, that's 25 animals per week.
So, this week’s newspaper headlines held a special resonance for me. They concerned the conviction of several high-ranking members of an Irish traveller criminal gang, the ‘Rathkeale Rovers', whose robbery spree - in between offering to tarmac your driveway at very competitive rates - amassed an astonishing £60million haul. Yes, you read that correctly. £60 million. That’s four times greater than the Hatton Garden heist.
Among the commodities the gang dealt in was rhino horn, currently worth more on the world’s black markets that heroin, gold and cocaine. The main market for illegal horn is Vietnam.
Spookily - and the reason I'm penning this blog - is that this event happened to connect with my latest reading material, a terrific book called Killing for Profit, penned by the award-winning South African investigative journalist Julian Rademeyer.
The book is the result of a two-year long investigation Rademayer made into the illegal rhino horn trade. It was a journey into a vast criminal underworld involving poachers, gangsters – including the Irish lot - mercenaries, con-men, gun-runners, corrupt politicians and powerful crime bosses and it reads like a thriller.
His journey took him from Namibia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the South African veldt to the medicine markets of Vietnam and a hide-out on the banks of the Mekong River in Laos.
His account is as shocking as it is riveting and the likelihood is it will make you very, very angry.
But it’s a cracking read.
If I’ve sparked your interest you can click on the image of the book jacket above. That'll take you to a You Tube video in which Julian Rademayer talks about how the book came to be written.
Here's a link to a newspaper article on the conviction of the Rathkeale Rovers:
And if the idea of volunteering for conservation work appeals, here's a link to the Worldwide Experience website. I have no connection with the organization other than my trip with them as a volunteer. Oh, and the fact that they were kind enough to use some of my photos in one of their brochures, a few of which are dotted around this page.