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Using soccer to save rhinos

WAYZATA — Soccer balls are saving endangered rhinos in South Africa.

Many poachers have traded in their weapons for soccer shoes and uniforms, thanks to a soccer league with ties to the Lake Minnetonka area.

Orono native Matt Bracken, who started the anti-poaching Wild and Free Foundation five years ago, says the organization’s Rhino Cup premier soccer league is helping save lives — animals and humans.

“In most of these communities where we go, the really only economy comes from rhino poaching,” Bracken said in a recent interview. “The question for us was: How can we start to change the narrative?”

That narrative has become an organized poaching effort on protected wildlife reserves that uses locals to kill endangered rhinos and take their valuable horns, all while trying to avoid being caught or killed by heavily-armed anti-poaching units.

If a poacher is killed, “literally thousands of others” in the poverty-stricken communities around the preserves are “lined up” to take their place because of the large amount of money they can make, Bracken said.

A rhino horn sells in Asia for about $50,000 a pound, with an average horn weighing about 5 pounds, Bracken said.

Powder from the crushed horn is considered to cure everything from hangovers to cancer, and serve as a cocaine-like drug, but none of that has been substantiated by medical reports.

“A rhino poaching team averages three or four guys going into the bush for four or five days, and if they kill one or two rhinos, they get about $20,000 in U.S. dollars,” he said. “Splitting that is more money than they will make in a lifetime otherwise.”

Sadly, many poachers are killed, “leaving fatherless kids, widows and mothers who hate the wildlife preserves because a son has been killed by anti-poachers.”

Bracken said natives used to kill animals for food, but the park reserves “cut off their way of life,” adding that now “big money and big players are involved in the crime of poaching.”

In 2016, Wild and Free officials met with poaching communities in Mozambique to see if there were ways to create new activities and opportunities other than rhino poaching.

The result was development of an organized soccer league.

“There are soccer fields everywhere there,” Bracken said. “Africans are passionate about soccer, and in Mozambique soccer is off the charts.”

Uniforms, equipment, officials, field improvements, prize money and other items were needed to get the league started.

In 2017, Wild and Free sponsored a 12-team tournament and provided uniforms, food, transportation, prize money and medals. More than 800 people attended the title game.

Wild and Free continues to support anti-poaching rangers, but believes “uplifting the communities living next to the wildlife reserves is a long-term solution to decreasing rhino poaching,” Bracken said.

Steve Albers, a Wayzata real estate agent and childhood friend of Bracken, is sponsoring one of the Rhino Cup teams. Albers, along with brother Joshua Albers, of St. Louis Park, and sister Erin Stahler, of Montana, went on a 10-day trip in April to experience the soccer league and visit the preserves.

“It was amazing,” Steve Albers said. “I expected to see some pretty amazing things that Matt was doing, but I didn’t expect to see how amazing it is. He’s changing lives and making an impact; not just locally, but regionally. He is an inspiration.”

Albers met his Albers Strikers team and got to witness the impact the soccer league is having on villages.

“The idea is to give them hope for something other than poaching,” Albers said. “There is a respect for why poachers do what they do, for their families, and I think they have a respect for what Matt and others are doing to try and curb the poaching. It’s a very multi-layered situation; a kind of fragile atmosphere.”

When asked what he most took away from the experience, Albers said: “How wonderful it was to do this with my siblings, who were both soccer players and are biologists. I also have a new appreciation for what I have; a respect for the basics of life and how we can get jaded.”

Albers raised about $3,000 to sponsor cleats, uniforms and other items for his team, which greeted him with hugs, handshakes and “a lot of appreciation. It was so cool!”

Stahler, 36, a wildlife biologist with the wolf project at Yellowstone National Park, called the trip “a once in a lifetime experience on many, many levels.

“I came away with a better understanding of how complicated the whole topic of rhino poaching is,” she said. “It’s easy for people on the outside to criticize poachers and what they are doing because to us it seems like such a horrible act, but once you go and see the people and their wonderful culture, and the poverty they are in, you start to understand why one would be tempted to do so.”

Stahler said many of the natives have an appreciation for the soccer league and its goals.

“The best way to try and prevent the poaching is to give them something else to do, which is soccer, something they love,” she said. “A lot of women were thankful because their concern is that their men just disappear; that all of sudden their loved ones are gone.”

Stahler said she will be working to help Wild and Free with grant applications “because it’s a good enough cause that I want to stay involved.”

Bracken worked many years for Travel Beyond, a Wayzata-based travel consultancy that specializes in African and other trips. He also received training in 2013 from Protrack Anti-Poaching Unit in South Africa.

“I am not naive enough to think soccer is going to eliminate the poaching,” he said, adding that three members of soccer teams have been killed while poaching.

“This year, 47 rhinos were killed in Kruger National Park, but only one within the general radius from where these soccer guys would be poaching,” Bracken said. “This is a foot in the door. The mothers and wives are so glad that when their son or husband is so tired from soccer practice and games that he is not even thinking of poaching.”

“There has been a reduction in deaths and disappearance of young people, and a reduction of crime, which we hope is related to the Rhino Cup Champions League,” he said. “The league was a community suggestion and is now community run, which is why I think it is successful. They’ve taken ownership of it.”

A women’s league is set to begin in mid-July, with plans for a youth league underway, Bracken said.

“Our goal is to not only expand the league to other communities in Mozambique, but also other countries,” he said. “We would like to see it expand to all areas abutting wildlife reserves.”

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