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Footballer scores goal for anti-poaching efforts

Fiona Macleod

As rhino fatalities hit an all-time high at the end of last year, Premier Soccer League star Gordon Gilbert set out to tackle the scourge.

As rhino fatalities hit an all-time high at the end of last year, Premier Soccer League star Gordon Gilbert set out to tackle the scourge by consulting some of the communities most affected by poaching. On December 29 the central defender started an epic nine-day walkabout among communities living on the western borders of the Kruger National Park.

Almost half of the 443 rhinos poached in South Africa in 2011 were killed in the park and the private reserves that make up the greater Kruger. More than 110 kilometres through his journey this week, Gilbert told the Mail & Guardian the idea was to raise awareness about poaching and seek solutions with communities whose jobs are threatened by the rising demand for rhino horn in Asian countries.

“The people living on the borders of the Kruger rely on tourism and they understand the importance of wildlife,” he said. “They know about foreigners coming in to poach animals, but they don’t know what to do with the information.”

According to South African investigators, many of the Kruger poachers are Mozambicans with military training. They live in squalor in the border region and their cut of the poaching profits is quite small. While playing football and hosting clinics with community members, sharing in their New Year festivities and chatting in the shade with the elders, Gilbert pointed out that it was not in their interests to harbour poachers. “We are working on ways to protect the people who give information on poachers. They don’t want to keep it secret, but they need to remain anonymous.”

The former Kaizer Chiefs player, now with Mpumalanga Black Aces, volunteered his free time over his annual year-end break. He walked an average of 30 kilometres a day with local guides and plans to finish at Ngala Safari Lodge in the Kruger on January 9.

Born in Witbank and raised in Scotland, where he played for the Scottish Premier League before returning to South Africa in 2005, Gilbert joined forces with Footprints of Hope, a rhino awareness campaign run by private safari operator &Beyond. “Rhinos are in desperate need,” he said. “We may realise how lucky we are to have them only when we lose them all.”

Gilbert had not heard about the controversy that erupted on New Year’s Day over the sale of a white rhino bull to a hunter by Ezemvelo-KZN Wildlife. The hunter paid more than R960 000 to shoot the bull, raising the ire of anti-poaching activists. “I don’t know about that issue, but I do know that we Africans need to protect our heritage. We are getting robbed at the moment,” Gilbert said.

Armed with makarapa hard hats and hand-drawn posters sporting rhino images, Gilbert said it was the first time such an awareness campaign had been undertaken in the rural villages of Hluvukani, Exeter, Dumfries, Justicia and Lilydale.

He recorded on a blog his experiences of living with the residents and helping with chores, such as grinding maize and transporting water in a wheelbarrow. “We are getting a lot of feedback from the residents and I feel we have made inroads. When I get home, I am going to discuss this with my teammates and see if we can’t get more sports people involved in rhino campaigns.”

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