Jack Greef’s war on poaching

20th June 2014   •  By James Bailey

Snares embedded by calcification in the bones of the animals which they caught

Saturday 14th June 2014

I accompanied the students to the shooting range for their final day of ARH (Advanced Rifle Handling) assessments. Those that were still to pass were very tense, so much so that they were psyching themselves out of it. I know the symptoms as I almost did such myself in December.

It’s not an easy assessment, the name says it all, advanced rifle handling. Even if you have the qualification it doesn’t instantly make you a great shot. Today I missed the lion on my first simulated charge and then severely annoyed him on the second. Still, if the poop does hit the fan it’s likely that should I miss my shot I’ll not live to see the consequences. If I hit I’m a hero.

The range is on the Park’s western boundary overlooking the Limpopo. Mabiligwe is an old training base for the South African Recces (Special Forces) but is now used by the concession’s Anti Poaching Unit (APU). Once we’d finished up on the range we had a look around the old quarters and parade ground. You could sense the history of the place, but it wasn’t the military days that fascinated me it was its more recent history.

During my time at Makuleke I’ve heard one man’s name so many times, Jack Greef. He, up until six years ago ran the APU here. From what I understand he was a no nonsense guy and ran a very disciplined team with zero tolerance to poaching. The base here must have been like a second home for him as in his former life he was actually a member of the the Recces where he became one of the most decorated soldiers in the South African Defence Force.

Walking around the ranger station, which is only partly operational, you could imagine what it would have been like under Jack’s command. In one room, the laundry, there was a row of stainless steel sinks opposite what looked like two permanently erect ironing boards – no doubt the rangers would have been immaculately turned out.

If there ever was such a thing as an animal grave yard this was it. We walked around the largest building on the site, the mess hall. This was lined with skulls and other bones, the owners were incredibly varied – crocodiles, elephant, buffalo, hippo, kudu, leopard, hyena – you name it, they were here to be seen.

Some of the skulls came complete with a competently placed bullet hole for a perfect brain shot. Whether this had been self defence, poaching or euthanasia there was no way of knowing. It wasn’t just a bone yard, it also resembled the den of a scrap metal merchant, there were thousands upon thousands of snares, Steve pointed out that what we saw was nothing compared to what was collected under Jack’s watch – 27,000.

Inside the mess hall itself there was a bar at one end, I imagine a hangover from the Recce days. The hall was now completely empty with the exception of confiscated spears and fish traps and on the window sills were animals bones with old wire snares calcified into them. The last room I visited would have been the centre of Jack’s operation, nothing left here now other than a dusty desk and a few maps on the wall which resembled more a pin cushion than a map.

We stopped for phone signal on the way back to camp. I had an email from the Section Ranger saying that she’s going to set up a meeting as my version of events do not correspond with those detailed by her ranger. I really don’t want the aggro, this isn’t what I came out here for. I hope she speaks to those from the Pel’s survey before I have to go down, their account of the situation should put an end to it.

The situation is starting to eat away at me slightly, knowing that things can happen that are beyond your control is starting to dent my confidence. Whilst I know it was vehicle based I wanted to nip it in the bud by getting back out in the field. So I woke Max up and persuaded him to go for a walk with me. We took the rifles and headed off into the floodplain, just what I needed. We even had a buffalo encounter to exorcise the demons properly.