My Journey into Conservation The terror lit up on the huge buffalo’s face as four powerful female lions mounted its back and used their weight to pull it down. Patiently, they gradually wore the beast down until it could fight no more and finally gave in to the onslaught. The rest of the pride cautiously approached the kill before devouring the buffalo well into darkness. I was utterly blown away. Scenes like this, narrated by the grandfatherly tones of the great Sir David Attenborough are what I grew up watching. I was fascinated by the natural world and all the wonders it had to offer. I dreamed of saving and working with animals. However, as a result of a few poorly made decisions when I was younger, this dream seemingly passed me by, and my life took an entirely different direction. I went through life, thinking that those animals that I had grown up watching would always be something in a distant land. Something that I would only ever see from the comfort of my living room. It wasn’t until the ripe old age of 28 that my life took an unexpected and quite unbelievable turn. I was lucky enough to be offered the most life-changing of trips to South Africa with my good friend and her amazing family. I just didn’t realise back then how life-changing it would actually be. So, in April 2017, we headed out to a safari camp in the Timbavati. Part of the Greater Kruger for what would be a five-day safari. To say that I was excited was the understatement of the year! And as the small fixed-wing plane touched down on the dirt runway, I was about to live out a childhood dream I never thought would never come to fruition. Our guide greeted us with a warm handshake and a beaming smile as we approached the Land Cruiser, which we would be using for the next week. His name was Ant and, although I didn’t know why at the time, I felt an instant connection to him as he drove us through the bush to the entrance of the camp. I was simply blown away by the luxury tents that we stayed in, overlooking the dry riverbed running past the camp. This place was incredible, and the attention to detail and authenticity was astonishing! Over the next few days, I was able to really take in the wonders of what the bush had to offer. And with a guide like Ant, whose knowledge and bushcraft is second to none, I felt I learnt more in that short week than I had in the previous five years. Ant’s passion for the bush poured forth, and you could tell that he meant everything he said. I knew that the safari would be amazing, but I wasn’t prepared for this level of detail and engagement. It really was a dream come true. However, it wasn’t until one specific moment that I had ever even thought about coming back to Africa to do any work of my own. One morning, while out on our game drive, we came across the most stunning of scenes. Softly and almost silently, a crash of five rhinos stood in the distance. Grazing peacefully in the open veld in front of us. We crept up quietly to viewing point perfect enough to get a close-up view, but not too close as to disturb the rhinos. It’s not often that I’m blown away but seeing these majestic, yet prehistoric beasts in the wild was just the most magical experience. Ant told us of the goosebumps that covered his body, an experience that I was quite clearly sharing with him. Now, I knew that there was an issue of poaching, but I had no idea as to the extent at which it was happening. Ant’s voice broke as he explained that, in the last four years alone, South Africa had lost over 4,000 rhino due to poaching. It was at that precise point that I knew I had to come back and do something. The rest of the trip was out of this world, and we spent the next three days in a field camp with Ant and another guide, Lloyd. I became fascinated with their knowledge of track and sign and all things bush. We really couldn’t have asked for better guides to show us Africa on foot. But, in the forefront of my mind, was the question: “how I could get back out to Africa to support the rhino protection effort?” Luckily, I had three years’ experience in the British Army Reserve to call upon at the time. On returning to Blighty, I started searching the internet for ways to get back and help. It wasn’t long before I stumbled across Veterans for Wildlife, a charity established to empower veterans by providing trained ex-forces personnel to address the poaching crisis in Africa. Although I had no operational tours of duty under my belt, I had trained as a reconnaissance soldier with the Royal Yeomanry. I explained this in my application, along with my passion for wildlife. Fast forward a few months, and I was back on the plane to OR Tambo International Airport about to work on a project. Helping to safeguard what is arguably the most critical population of rhino left in the world. Driving through the Jurassic Park style gates of Kruger National Park and seeing miles and miles of wilderness was a special feeling. I was back in the place I most felt at home - only this time I was there with a purpose. One thing that struck me as soon as we started work was the level of dedication of the Rangers on the ground. They worked tirelessly, around the clock, to protect these animals. Putting their lives on the line in what was now being described as the “Rhino War”. Indeed, hundreds of Rangers, across Africa, have lost their lives at the hands of poachers. Rhino poaching and horn trafficking isn’t a low-level crime. It is an international operation, which requires significant planning, on many levels. Due to demand in the Far East, rhino horn has become one of the most expensive commodities in the world. Overtaking both cocaine and gold. Corruption on a colossal scale has set in, and with 3 rhino per day being lost to poaching, it looks like this could be a losing battle. It wasn’t until I was up in the Kruger National Park chopper with a couple of the Rangers that I saw this first-hand. Within twenty minutes of take-off, we had located the carcasses of three poached rhino, all of which had been killed within the last few days. One of these rhinos was now nothing more than a meal for a couple of hungry lionesses, which retreated hastily as the chopper flew overhead. That gut-wrenching feeling as we hovered over the carcass will live with me forever. Anyone that has seen rhino in the wild, white rhino in particular, will know that they are the most gentle and curious animals. Mostly blind, they rely mainly on their sense of smell and will spend hours peacefully grazing before laying up under a tree to get away from the burning African sun. Their gentle demeanour makes what is happening to them all the more infuriating. The barbaric manner in which they are killed, on many an occasion leaving a helpless calf behind, is beyond horrific. All this killing! And for what? So that someone in the East can have a horn on their mantlepiece as a status symbol? On my return from Africa, the calling to keep doing something good was strong. So, with the blessing of Veterans for Wildlife, I went to some local schools to talk about what was happening. I had no illusions that this wouldn’t have a massive effect on the rhinos out in Kruger, but raising awareness and education is still a considerable part of conservation. And if I could capture the imagination of even just one of these kids and inspire them to go on and help animals in the future, then it would be worth it. The engagement from the children was nothing short of inspiring. At such an innocent age, they truly wanted to make a difference to the world and help however they could. With this in mind, I was keen to give them something a little more practical that they could get involved with. Not specifically rhino related, but more so for the local environment. So, when a friend of mine Michelle sent me a link on plogging (running while picking up rubbish), the answer was there. We decided to hold a local plog along the Thames Path at Putney. Just as trial to see how it went. On the day we had sixteen people attend and collected an enormous amount of rubbish. Everyone who came to the event left buzzing that they had not only had a decent workout but had also given something back to the environment and their local community. We soon realised that we could have a significant impact with this initiative and so the Plogolution was born. We had t-shirts made up so that participants could feel part of a movement determined to make a difference. We always hold a walking and a running group so that we can cater to people of all backgrounds, ages and abilities. And within six months we had held large scale plogs all over London. We have continued running the large-scale community plogs, but we also decided to go into schools to set up individual plogging clubs. We would hold an assembly focussed on plastic pollution and the environment and then take the school for their first plog. Providing bags, gloves, t-shirts and litter pickers, with a link on our website so that they could input the data of the rubbish they had found that week. To date, we have almost twenty-five schools plogging across London. And they have cleared more than 2,000 plastic bottles and 2,000 cans off our streets and parks. As well as a staggering 24,000 cigarette butts with plenty more waste for landfill. The proof is in the pudding. You are never too small to make a difference! Our goal for Plogolution is to bring together as many different people as possible. Giving them a platform through which to make a difference in their world. We also want to inspire a generation of young people to not only put down their computers and get active but to also become role models in their local communities. Taking real pride in looking after their environment. We aim to push this into schools all over the world and empower the youth to make a change. My heart is also still very much in Africa, and over the last year, I’ve been lucky enough to get back out there three times. Twice with Veterans for Wildlife and once more with my good friend and true inspiration Ant Collett. The deployment back in February 2019 saw a spike in poaching activity, and we were able to assist in the arrest of nine poachers in Kruger. As well as deter many more. It was hard work, but very rewarding, knowing that we were making such a difference. More recently, this summer, I was asked to assist in a training package for a team of wildlife rangers on a reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. Deploying alongside Andrew and Glen, from Veterans for Wildlife, I was specifically in charge of the PT aspects of the training package. As a Physical Trainer in London, this combined my two passions of fitness and conservation perfectly. It was an honour to assist in all other aspects of the training, including tactics and crime scene management, as well as join the Rangers on several night patrols around the reserve. We almost came unstuck at the hands of a territorial black rhino! And I was incredibly proud to be made an honorary Zulu. From KwaZulu-Natal, I went on to my third deployment in Kruger and was delighted to see that the project was having such a positive impact on the rhino population there. I was even lucky enough to show my son around the bush for two weeks in between deployments. Confident that he will share the same passion for the bush as me and perhaps pursue a career in conservation. The look on his face when he saw his first rhino will live with me forever! I also had the fantastic experience of taking five of my friends out to South Africa to a private reserve called Sandringham, next to the Timbavati. We enjoyed an exclusive private safari run by Ant and his lovely fiancé Lisa. Ant and his fantastic guide Terrace were able to give us the experience of a lifetime and even managed to track down one of the only female white lions left in the wild. This was another sighting that will live with all of us forever. Ant is now starting up his own eco-friendly safari company, and I can’t begin to recommend him enough. Being with him in the bush is so much more than a holiday. It’s a holiday, educational experience and complete city-detox all in one. You will come away feeling refreshed and packed with knowledge on all the fauna and flora that the bush has to offer. My life couldn’t be any more different to the one I was living a few years back. And, as I write this, I am massively grateful for all of those who have helped me turn it around. I am truly living out a childhood dream. It is, without a doubt, a massive honour to volunteer with Veterans for Wildlife and help make a difference to something so important to me. We now have an exciting educational project underway, which will involve partnering schools in South Africa and the UK. We are sure it’s going to be an epic project! Our planet and the animals which live on it mean so much to me. To have the ability to dedicate so much of my spare time to look after them is something I’m incredibly grateful for. I’m confident that we will win the “war” and stop poaching, however long it takes. And I will continue to dedicate as much of my time to this as possible. The Plogolution team will continue to spread our message and inspire as many people as we can. Getting people active and making a difference. And I’m confident that, however small our individual impact, we will make the planet a better place. Thank you, Ant, the Veterans for Wildlife team and all those who have played a role in my journey into conservation! You have changed my life.