WWF Rhinos Wild And Free Foundation

A journey of two men making real positive change happen in South Africa!


South Africa – This incredible initiative started back in 2011 with Rohan Nel, a South African guy on a mission to film and document different stories and angles on poaching and animals and humans living together. Through his film, he was introduced to Matt Bracken, who decided to take a trip to Hoedspruit, South Africa and participate in a rangers training course.

This is where the idea of Wild and Free conceptualised.

These two guys first started with a documentary showcasing ranger training and what it took to become a warrior for our incredible animals.  

Rohan continued to film the ranger training, exposing the depths that these individuals had to reach to complete their course. The hard miles that had to be taken so that they would be prepared for what they would face in the world of poaching. 

In 2014 registration and trademarks were done for the Wild and Free Foundation. 

2015 came, and Rohan’s life turned inside out, on the 31st March 2015, he suffered from a severe heartache. His daughter Lylah was just a year old and was at home when he started experiencing pain in his arms and chest. The pain proceeded to get worse and worse; tears just overcame him. Lylah too in tears not sure what was happening. Rohan’s wife, Genevieve, arrived home to the chaos and immediately rushed Rohan to the hospital. Rohan’s heart stopped; he had died.

Two days later Rohan woke up, not knowing where he was or what happened, he had pipes all over as was strapped to his bed. The nurse assisting him then wrote down what had happened.

And so his recovery journey began. It was a rough ride financially and with trying to get work done. 

Matt then returned to South Africa for a fundraising event, Walking with Lions. At this event, he purchased a bull and two paintings. This bull was named Rohan and given to a community to improve the breed of cattle they have so that they can build up their cattle herd.

In 2016, Rohan performed a lot of freelance work, working on antipoaching stories. He was approached by Vincent from Protrack and asked if he would like to join him on a trip to Mozambique and give some soccer kits to poachers. Vincent had earlier in the year met with a group of poachers on the Mozambique side of the border, and they had mentioned that soccer would bring their communities together. Four soccer kits were purchased, and so the first games began.

Once the games were complete, celebrations and discussions took place. There was a slight miscommunication with the head of the community, and before Rohan knew it, they had committed to start a league. A round-robin, winner takes all. The cost of the league was just over R300 000, which included all the gear and more. Matt agreed to start a 6-month league and covered all the costs himself. 

A committee for the league was then developed in 2016, Rohan and Matt, now known as the Wild and Free Foundation went to Sabie/Corumana, Mozambique to meet with community leaders about the rhino poaching challenge they were experiencing. The community had two main problems with rhino poaching, many young men in the community were being killed and arrested while attempting to poach rhinos, and the organised crime element that runs rhino poaching was corrupting the community with drugs, weapons, prostitution and crime. 

The first league kicked off in 2017. Initially, the community thought Rohan and Matt were spies; trust had to be built and gained. The Wild and Free team had to convince these communities that they were there to save animals and ultimately wanted nature thriving wild and free among humans and humans being healthier and happier because of it.  

The first games only saw around 500 spectators, but they didn’t give up. 

In 2018 the Rhino Cup Champions League emerged as a way to reduce or end the poaching of wildlife in existing and surrounding wildlife parks, surrounding the Kruger National Park. It was established to help eliminate the practice of rhino poaching by the young men of the community and surrounding communities. Young men are recruited by organised crime syndicates to risk their lives and freedom to kill rhinos. Rhino horns are illegally shipped to Asia for the rich elite to impress each other with exotic wild animal parts for decoration, gifts, consumption, and ancient medicinal beliefs. 

Today the league supports the local community with all that’s needed for a soccer league, and at the same time, it supports the community in being uplifted, developed, creation of jobs as well as working together with the community on farming projects and developing small/medium businesses. In order to create and leave behind a sustainable solution for communities to become self-sufficient and effective. 

It’s truly magical how this league is changing lives, impacting communities and giving purpose to those who needed it. The league also provides young men with healthy and positive activity and opportunity in a place where few exist.  

The league was an absolute success! Teams played their hearts out, and the winners were rewarded. In 2018 the league saw 900 spectators attend and in 2019 the spectators grew to 1500. 

The trophy given to the winning team was engraved with the following slogan: “young people free from poaching” which the committee chose. 

Wild and free didn’t stop there, in 2018 they met with a teacher named Rachel who volunteered for Peace Corps. They learnt that none of the students in the Sabie school within Mozambique had ever been to Kruger National Park as a tourist.  In a class assignment, the students were asked to draw pictures of what they thought the Park would look like and most of the pictures were of dead rhinos with their horns cut off next to dollar signs.  

So, the next mission began, Wild and Free wanted to expose less fortunate young people to the possibilities that Tourism and Conservation could have for our wildlife.

The first focus was to have them engage in conversations around the habitat of animals that needs as much protection as what wildlife does.

Wild and Free managed to take 10 children to the Kruger National park, here they experienced and learnt about: 

  • The diversity of the African ‘bush’.
  • Experience and evaluate ecotourism as a growing industry.
  • Their role in conservation and ‘being good stewards’ of our environment.
  • Understand anti-poaching methods and the plight of the rhino.
  • Explore the role of nature reserves in the world today.
  • Study the fauna and flora of the African Lowveld.
  • Experience the smells, sights and sounds of the animals during the day and at night.
  • Be filled with fun and adventure.
  • Experience reflection and personal development.
  • Complete worksheets for each day’s itinerary with the purpose of teaching and learning.

The experience was an incredible one and one that would not be forgotten, they were able to teach these children about the animals and habitat, and not only open their minds to the benefits of conserving the Parks but to what job opportunities also exist in that space.  

This wasn’t enough, in 2019 Wild and Free were approached to start a women’s league. Rohan, Matt and a couple of his mates agreed to start a 6 team league as they couldn’t afford a full league at the time. The women play on a Saturday, and the guys play on a Sunday. The oldest women on the team is 25 years old. The Next year this league will grow to 12 teams and be a full league.

Why Soccer and the impact:

It’s not the soccer itself; it’s the platform allowing Wild and Free to assist other people, allowing them to talk to communities, suggest ideas and help build sustainable solutions. 

The community built the league; it was their idea, Wild and Free assisted them to talk to each other. This brings structure and consistency. 

The community has seen a change of behaviour, at the closing ceremony and meeting in 2018, Rohan and Matt sat with the community leader and members, and they informed the team of the following changes that have occurred: 

In 2017, 31 of their community people died in the Kruger National Park

In 2018, 17 fewer people died

Petty crime dropped by 30 percent as the kids were busy playing soccer

Young men were returning and staying home

The teams feel respected in their soccer kits; they have a sense of love and pride wearing them

The league has allowed them to have their own identity, not just be another number

They feel respected for the positions they are in and the role they play within their community.

Our Vision: 

“Understanding the nuances of both the communities themselves and those living in them—the drivers behind poaching mentalities—is imperative to create sustainable community programs on multiple levels that make a substantial impact in people’s lives and draw out more long-term thinking. This research has highlighted that different poaching mentalities appear to exist, not all of which are fully illustrated here, but are certainly grounds for further research into the communities. One person may poach out of ignorance about conservation, or because he feels he has no other choice (even if he deems it morally wrong) because he is in a dire situation and must accommodate his family. Another may do so because of peer pressure, or because he has been threatened to join because of his tracking skills, or perhaps he did it once and then became sucked in. Others may poach because they experience a sense of fulfilment, a life purpose, from being able to provide in an otherwise impoverished region, while still others may enjoy the thrill (and money) that comes from risky behaviour. And finally, there are those who have gotten a taste of the financial payoffs and simply don’t want to stop. And these mentalities can certainly overlap, depending on the person.

The point here is that those poachers who work out of greed will theoretically respond differently to education programs than those who feel the pull of the moral dilemma or have the desire to spend their time doing something else, even if the pay is less. Education programs focusing more on conservation and animal rights will likely work in some poaching areas, for some people, but they are also likely to be awkward – if not impractical – fit in others. Perhaps the most ideal situation would therefore be one in which each community has an array of education and development programs tailored to these different mentalities in order to reach the greatest number of at-risk youth, and assist community members nearest the parks in seeing it in their overall best interest to protect endangered animals such as the rhino.”

Expansion Goals:

In 2020 WFF is aiming to expand to an even bigger league. 

  • 14 teams men league
  • 12 teams women league

They will also continue developing and growing:

  • Sustainable farming education and solutions
  • Children’s education on conservation
  • Assisting endangered or threatened animals 

Over some time, we will educate and grow the leagues to be self-sustaining and self-funding. Ideally building a model that could be rolled out to several communities, educating them on how to create small/medium businesses that drives income together with sustaining a healthier and thriving environment that allows them to become ambassadors of conservation ultimately. 

And so, the birth of a “Conservation sports league”.

Sources: Wild And Free Foundation 
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About the Author

Brent Lindeque is the founder and editor in charge at Good Things Guy.

Recognised as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South African’s as well as a Primedia LeadSA Hero, Brent is a change maker, thought leader, radio host, foodie, vlogger, writer and all round good guy.

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