How three inspired innovators used soccer to take down poaching and inspire a new generation of athletes in southern Africa.
On the night he met Matt Bracken, Protrack Anti-Poaching Unit founder, Vincent Barkas, watched the barrel-chested American’s long hair flop wildly as he jumped up and down – apparently dancing – and thought to himself, “This guy is never going to make it.”
But with a lot of work, even more sweat, and a little luck, Bracken and Barkas are more than making it. In fact, their Rhino Cup Champions League (RCCL) is helping use soccer to make a real difference in southern Africa.
Established in 2018, the RCCL is comprised of 12 teams from nine communities in southwest Mozambique affected by rhino poaching and the corruption that surrounds it. The league was founded at the request of community elders to open a non-violent line of communication between anti-poachers and their counterparts, while providing villagers with activities outside of to rhino poaching.
A MULTI-FACETED ISSUE
Barkas, one of the founders also founded PROTRACK, one of the region’s first private anti-poaching units. His unit grew to more than 300 rangers patrolling for 100 clients in South Africa. However, while the boots on the ground approach is necessary to protect the animals, it doesn’t address the root problem or consider the poacher’s point of view.
Rhino poaching is a complex issue that spans several continents and carries unresolved economic and racial tensions from South African apartheid. Rhinos are tracked and killed for their horns, which are illegally trafficked to Asia and sold as art and ancient medicines.
“A lot of people are forgetting what needs to be understood about wildlife in Africa,” Barkas said. “Wildlife in Africa as a rich white man’s scene. Everything put in place is there to help wildlife be there so rich white guys can come and shoot it for 65,000 dollars.”
According to Barkas, private game reserves in South Africa are often established by wealthy white people and tend to displace or negatively impact the native communities. Then, the natives are asked to put their lives on the line to protect the wildlife against poachers (who might not realize that their prey is endangered) only to watch the animals die at the hands of the highest bidder.
To further escalate tensions, anti-poaching is a zero-sum game that only ends in one of three ways. “The rhino dies, we die, or they die,” Barkas said. “When we send one of poachers home in a box, they hate us even more, and you create more resentment toward conservation. You create more enemies over nothing.”
That was the mood when Barkas was asked to go to a village in Mozambique to speak with poachers there. Despite the risk, Barkas made the trip to meet five known poachers who obviously didn’t trust him. He told them that he was there because he loved rhinos and wanted to find a way to stop the killing and have both sides benefit. The group’s leader reply was simple – soccer.
“Then I left and realized I needed someone stupid enough to start soccer,” Barkas said through a chuckle. “I couldn’t do it as Vincent from Protrack.”
HELP FROM AN UNLIKELY SOURCE
That’s when he remembered that energetic Yank from so long ago. So he asked Bracken and Rohan Nel, a prominent South African filmmaker for help. The pair were more than willing to take the lead. And in 2016 the trio went to Sabie– a small farming village with around three thousand people – to talk with community elders about poaching and take the first steps toward starting a soccer league. The elders said Sabie’s young men were bored and idle, hanging out at the corner bar where they were recruited by poaching kingpins.
“Basically, a kingpin comes into the bar and says we need 20 horns,” Bracken said. “So that’s 20 teams of two to four young guys doing this. These kids are good trackers, extremely fit, desperate and have nothing to do. A three or four-day trip into the bush is an adventure for them.”
Bracken and Nel began setting up a four-team tournament with a two-cow feast and raised money for four uniform kits bearing the name of the local wildlife reserve. Hundreds of people came to the first Rhino Cup. The interest was more than apparent.
After the tournament, the elders requested they expand the event into a full soccer league based on the English Premier League. So Bracken and Nel identified six community leaders and asked them to form a committee to run the Rhino Cup Champions League. The committee expanded the league to 12 teams from nine communities within a two-hour driving radius, hired referees, set a schedule and rules based on the Premier League and figured out the logistics of transporting teams from field to field.
Meanwhile, Bracken and Nel focused on finding sponsors. In April 2018, the Rhino Cup Champions League held its opening ceremonies in front of over 500 people.
“People drove from all over in any kind of transport they could find,” Bracken said. “The community was energized, the chief spoke about uplifting our youth and coming closer together.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
One person who took notice was Peace Corp member Rachel Ledebuhr, who was teaching 8th-grade math in Sabie when the Rhino Cup came to town and met Bracken. In 2018, she helped translate between Bracken and the locals to help the league expand in size and popularity.
“Soccer truly is life there,” Ledebuhr, a Michigan native, said. “There are two and three-year-olds kicking bags of sand around trying to play soccer, so it’s good for them to have a league.”
Ledebuhr encountered the effects of poaching regularly during her stay in Sabie and discovered that the issue wasn’t necessarily one of good versus evil.
“I learned that poachers are not all bad people – many are just trying to help their family,” Ledebuhr said. “One of them turned his money into a tomato farm and sells his produce in the village and gave back to the community by donating to the library.”
The committee members worked hard on the league and didn’t wait for Bracken and Nel’s input to make changes. The community also produced a self-taught webmaster, a man in his 20s that had already set up his own website. Bracken loved the man’s initiative and asked him to continue as webmaster on the new website.
The Rhino Cup season consists of six games every Sunday for 22 weeks from April to September. According to Barkas, each of these games – 132 in total – are not only a community get together, but a little boost to the local economy.
“People show up to the games to sell chips, lukewarm “cold” drinks,” Barkas said. “It’s not much, but it’s something and it’s much more than what they are used to. You make loyal friends this way.”
A LASTING, POSITIVE INFLUENCE
At the end of the 2018 season, Bracken and Nel sat down with the committee and learned that petty theft in the district where Rhino Cup soccer is played went down 50% and fewer people from the district died in Kruger National Reserve than the previous year.
“We can’t confirm if it’s a direct result of the soccer league, but that’s the only major change in the communities last year,” Nel said. “I think we are having a small, positive impact. Community work is all about a five-year stretch, so we are buckling in to see what the results are after five years.”
Nel also said that a few women came forward to say that their boys have been too proud and too busy to go out into the bush.
Rhino Cup soccer has also given Bracken, Nel, and Barkas a desperately needed approach to anti-poaching that doesn’t involve camouflage, handcuffs, and assault rifles. Too often anti-poaching efforts had it backward, going in head-first before planning and gathering ideas.
Perhaps the league’s most significant impact is the non-violent channels of communication it has opened between anti-poachers and poaching communities. Barkas insisted that soccer is not the solution to anti-poaching, but it’s a way to focus less on guns and bullets and more on education and outreach.
“We are looking ahead to the next age group,” Barkas said. “With soccer, we get them to think, ‘Not all of these white guys are so bad.’”
After last year’s success, Bracken is looking to expand the league into more communities and age groups. Another goal is to become the country’s first semi-pro league and send players to the national level. To achieve the league’s goals, Bracken is focusing his efforts on raising money through sponsorships and fundraising events and seems to have found his calling.
“This shouldn’t be working, but somehow we are making it work. And without Matt it wouldn’t be happening at all. Matt’s not like other guys, he actually loves these people more than all of us. He’s grown fond of them and he just knows what needs to be done.”