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Khaki Fever

Mick Fanning, Tyler Wright, David Pocock and Luke Rockhold visit Pridelands Conservancy in South Africa

Tyler Wright and Mick Fanning record the moment a big tusker joins them on safari. © KIrstin Scholtz

Four international sporting icons, three times World Surfing Champion Mick Fanning, reigning Women’s World Surfing Champion Tyler Wright, former UFC Middleweight Champion Luke Rockhold and Australian Rugby legend David Pocock found themselves dressed in khaki and covered in dust when they visited the WildArk Pridelands Conservancy outside the small town of Hoedspruit South Africa.

Fanning, who is an ambassador for WildArk participated in his second trip with the organisation, the first being to Alaska where he helped raise awareness for the pristine Bristol Bay wilderness, under threat from Pebble Mine. This time he invited a group of mates to join him to learn about conservation in South Africa and the WildArk project on the ground including long time friend and internationally renowned photographer Corey Wilson, Tyler Wright and Luke Rockhold. The group were also joined by fellow WildArk ambassadors David and Emma Pocock, who have been living in Zimbabwe on a sabbatical from rugby.

Their journey started on Pridelands, a 4500-acre former hunting farm that WildArk founders Mark and Sophie Hutchinson are in the process of rehabilitating into a wildlife conservancy. The mission is to drop fences with the adjacent reserve to extend the wildlife corridor of the Greater Kruger National Park, in line with the companies mission to create more space for biodiversity worldwide.

“Coming to Africa to see Pridelands was something I had dreamt of. To be able to see for myself the difference between this property that hasn’t had elephants on it for 60 years versus the other more natural systems next door was eye opening. It’s crazy to think that its only some wire and a few wooden poles separating the wildlife on one side of it from this pristine wilderness area and it’s time to let them all in.” — Mick Fanning

“Coming to Africa to see Pridelands was something I had dreamt of. To be able to see for myself the difference between this property that hasn’t had elephants on it for 60 years versus the other more natural systems next door was eye opening. It’s crazy to think that its only some wire and a few wooden poles separating the wildlife on one side of it from this pristine wilderness area and it’s time to let them all in.” — Mick Fanning

The purpose of the trip was to educate the athletes on conservation in South Africa as a whole, so that they could understand the potential in the WildArk Pridelands property and where it sits in the broader scheme of conservation.

Mark Hutchinson, Founder of WildArk said, “The focus of this trip was to showcase the different aspects of South African conservation, both the opportunities and challenges. We hoped to take Mick, Dave and the group on an educational, fun and inspiring journey, meeting the people on the ground who are doing what they can for wildlife.

Pridelands is WildArk’s first physical project and it was amazing to show Mick and Dave what their ambassadorships are helping to accomplish. Seeing his understanding grow through being introduced to the project first hand was critical, in particular standing on the northern fence, with just a few strands of wire are the last barrier to free wildlife movement for the first time in half a century.

The other legs of his journey provided insights into a wide variety of solutions to conserving tracks of wilderness, from our direct neighbours already open to Kruger National Park, anti-poaching teams and training camps, to one of Southern Africa’s best ecotourism lodges.

Combining now a broad understanding of the issues facing African wildlife and meeting some amazing people who have dedicated their lives to making a difference, our ambassador’s profiles will benefit the mission here by raising awareness.”

The team visited a number of other properties and learned of different conservation models during their time in Africa.

White Rhino at first light. © Kirstin Scholtz

“It was sheer luck and timing that we were able to have both WildArk’s ambassadors in South Africa at the same time. To see Dave and Mick working together tracking rhino along with Emma Pocock, chatting by the fire on their experiences and nearly tearing down our fence with their bare hands was awesome.” said WildArk co-founder Sophie Hutchinson.

“Having two legends of Australian sport, so dedicated to conservation and using their reach to have impact, was inspiring for the WildArk team to see.

The cherry on top was the last minute addition of another Australian legend Tyler Wright, who’s first trip to Africa started by walking into 2 white rhino! Tyler is such a wonderful and genuine person, we were honoured to have her here.

Having a group of people out in nature, passionately sharing an experience and connecting with the wilderness is exactly what WildArk is all about”

The team enjoying drinks around the fire at Leopard Dam on Pridelands Conservancy © Kirstin Scholtz

After spending a day on Pridelands, Fanning, Wright, Rockhold and the Pococks visited the neighbouring York Private Nature Reserve where the fences were dropped to the Greater Kruger many years ago, now home to free roaming elephant and other big five game.

On York, they were introduced to warden Rian Ahlers who heads up anti-poaching for the property and delivered an overview of the challenges in the area.

Rian Ahlers shows the team some of the newest rhino skulls left behind after poachers killed both rhino for their horn. Kirstin Scholtz

The team enjoyed a thrilling flight in the anti-poaching helicopter where they searched for rhino from the air, whilst enjoying sightings of herds of elephants, rhinos and giraffe with one of the best pilots in the bush.

Flying over Balule Reserve the team got to see just how vast the area is and how difficult it is to find poachers. © Kirstin Scholtz

“You’ve heard about all the bad stuff that’s happening to the wildlife in Africa but to come out here and see what’s going on first hand, gives you a greater appreciation for just how much work is going on to preserve these areas for future generations to enjoy.” — Tyler Wright

On the third day, the team visited the South African Wildlife College that houses the Bat Hawk anti-poaching fleet, to meet with Colonel Otch Otto who heads up the tactical command and control centre for all operations within Greater Kruger Environmental Protection Zone.

The SAWC Aircraft provide surveillance, patrol and response to poaching incursions as well as support to field rangers. Aircraft are often the first to respond to a situation and provide valuable assistance and aerial support to field rangers, reaction teams and helicopters. The team were fortunate enough to have lessons in some of the Bat Hawk fleet as well as travel to the SAWC Hangar in the new fixed wing aircraft.

Dave Pocock prepares for take off in the Bat Hawk. © Kirstin Scholtz

The South African Wildlife College underpins the Anti-Poaching training being undertaken for government and partner organisations. The Greater Kruger Environmental Protection Foundation (GKEPF) facility combined with its resident K9 unit, well trained field rangers and aerial surveillance fleet, all play a key role in anti-poaching operations of the Joint Protection Zone.

The WildArk and GKEPF crews at the SAWC Hangar. © Kirstin Scholtz

The team enjoyed a special demonstration by the K9 unit tracker dogs who are currently being trained as free running pack dogs fitted with GPS collars so they can track and find poachers up to 30 to 40km away. The dogs will keep poachers at bay while helicopters and aerial surveillance locate them from the air.

“I love dogs and to go to see the wildlife college and see what they do on an anti-poaching regime with dogs, teaching them to track poachers and sniff out horn was incredible. I wish I could train my dog to do the same!” – Mick Fanning

K9 unit at the South African Wildlife College. © Kirstin Scholtz

The unit revealed their expertise in sniffing out rhino horn as well as apprehending a ‘poacher’ in Mick Fanning who dressed in a protection suit before being tackled to the ground by one of the trained dogs.

Mick Fanning attacked by a dog at the South African Wildlife College. © Kirstin Scholtz

From here the team headed to Londolozi, a commercial safari lodge that epitomises luxury in ecotourism in South Africa to show how wildlife can be protected through tourism, education and community.

It was a chance for the team to soak up the awe of Africa’s wildlife and learn from leaders in their field from the Londolozi trackers to the Lion Man.
“Our friends at Londolozi game lodge in the Sabi Sands, are an amazing example of long-term dedication to conservation and exceptional experiential tourism.” said Mark Hutchinson “Our mission by staying at the lodge was to introduce the group to one of the best examples of good custodianship of wild land, learn about tracking big five animals on foot and hear lessons from the past and a vision for conservation in the future from the Londolozi family.”

The impact of the experience with WildArk in South Africa was significant for all the ambassadors and their visitors. As a team they relished the time away from the pressures of their daily lives to be out in nature, connecting with the wilderness and experiencing some amazing wildlife. The knowledge gained from learning about efforts being made by both local and global initiatives to protect and conserve species and biodiversity for future generations was truly immense.

David Pocock summed up his time with WildArk, “I think the last few days have reinforced just how special the bush really is. Seeing people like Mick, Tyler, Luke and Corey in the African bush and how they come alive, how exciting it is and how incredible the connections between plants, animals and human interactions are. I think it reinforces how lucky I’ve been to spend time out in the bush and try to reconnect in some way.”

For Tyler Wright, the experience in the African bush was one that she will never forget.

“ It feels like this experience has kind of changed the course of my life in a lot of ways. Being out here, it feels so right to learn about mother nature and conserving these areas. It’s not often that you meet people that change your course in life, but this whole experience and being out here in nature has made me feel like it is something I’m going to love forever. I just found my path and I’m so happy.” — Tyler Wright

For more information on the South African Wildlife College visit: http://www.wildlifecollege.co.za/

To make a contribution towards supporting anti-poaching efforts and K9 team, donations can be made via https://www.friends-of-african-wildlife.ch/