Officially launched in 2018 by Angie Willemse, non-profit organisation Boots on the Ground supports wildlife and rangers across South Africa in a bid to stop poaching.
“Our wildlife warriors and protectors put their own lives on the line for that which cannot protect itself – wildlife,” explains Angie, who was born in Vienna, Austria, and raised in Greece.
In 2014, she travelled from Austria where she was living to Mossel Bay, South Africa, for a travel photography course. As part of the course she spent ten days shooting on the Gondwana Game Reserve.
“This is where I met my first rhino and my love affair with them started. I called her Cheeky because she was the cheekiest and most entertaining rhino I have ever met,” says Angie.
Angie got hooked on rhinos and as the poaching epidemic worsened, she wanted to know more. “My friend Clare James, who ran the photography course, decided in March 2015 to visit several game reserves to find out what was needed to protect the rhino. We met some amazing people, heard some heart-breaking stories and filmed and photographed stunning places, animals and rangers,” says Angie.
This sparked the idea to launch Boots on the Ground and to film a documentary that tells the story of rangers and their charges.
“We only launched the organisation in 2018, after a ton of paperwork, finding the right directors and coming up with an outline of what we would like to help and support. We decided on small, grassroots projects, as they are the ones that need all the support they can get,” says Angie.
In 2016, while filming, Angie met Lourens and fell in love. They were soon married, which meant that Angie was in South Africa for good!
Since coming to Africa, Angie has visited Kenya, Zimbabwe and Mali, where she embedded herself with the anti-poaching units to film their stories and their work. “I visited reserves and rhino owners and filmed the beginning of an amazing journey of a group of passionate people in Mali, who were teaching the anti-poaching unit the necessary skills to work with communities to protect the last of the remaining desert elephants. What a privilege that was,” she says.
The organisation in action
Whilst rhinos are Angie’s passion, Boots on the Ground helps any species in need and currently has projects in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Gauteng and the Western Cape.
In Limpopo, the organisation supports a horse-based project which supports small and medium-sized game farms by looking for snares and animals that have been caught in them.
In Mpumalanga, it supports Friends of Wildlife Management. “We have a hands-on approach, but also help with equipment,” says Angie. She explains that the organisation saves, rescues and relocates wildlife and dehorns rhinos in need of protection.
“We are also handling the funds for a Ground Hornbill project and a Black-footed Cat project in Loskop, Mpumalanga, in partnership with Germany’s Zoo Magdeburg. We were able to help with much-needed items for the team in charge – Friends of Wildlife Management. Cages were built and containers and equipment to build proper enclosures for both projects were bought. We also organised much-needed masks for rhinos (for darting and dehorning), boots and uniforms and we assist with manpower when needed,” says Angie.
Another project that Boots on the Ground supports is Tracking & Conservation K9, which is located in the Waterberg. The organisation trains sniffer and tracking dogs for the Kruger National Park, Sabi Sands, Lewa Game Reserve and many others. “We assist with anything that’s needed, from helping with training to sponsoring equipment and feed,” says Angie.
On the garden route, Angie has put ‘boots on the ground’ to support the project she started out at. They support a reserve in the area, by monitoring their rhino, and people from all walks of life get involved.
“We have also assisted with an elephant rescue, a lion relocation and have been asked to assist with Pangolin rescue when the need arises.”
Boots on the Ground aims to complete the filming of its documentary by the end of February. Then the editing process will begin. “We want to join the fall and winter film festivals in Europe and the US,” says Angie. The trailer will be out soon.
As for the future, the organisation plans to build its own anti-poaching training unit and help a small unit to establish itself to help rangers with recurrent training. “We would like to help a lot more with training, equipment and support,” says Angie.
As with many non-profit organisations in South Africa, funding is a challenge.
“We would like to accomplish a lot more. We have some wonderful sponsors, but are still using our personal vehicles to deliver goods and drive from project to project. But we won’t give up. We will continue to help and support the tireless and often unappreciated ‘boots on the ground’,” says Angie.
“Because we film and photograph our projects, we are able to show donors and sponsors where their money goes. We are proud to have fulfilled one of our sponsor’s dreams by taking them to a site to see how their money is spent. This is something we offer, when we can, as we like people to see exactly what they are supporting,” Angie confirms.
The organisation’s biggest need at the moment is to get a vehicle sponsored. Corporates and individuals can also assist with monetary donations; equipment, including bulletproof vests, webbing, boots, uniforms and kennels for the dogs; or sponsoring wildlife cameras for one of the reserves, dog and K9 handler training, a ranger’s salary for a year, and weapons instructor training.