The Most Important Game
San Diego Legion Fly-half Joe Pietersen is No Ordinary Joe.
Out of Africa
It is midweek at lunchtime and Legion’s top gun, Joe Pietersen, is describing large creatures that roam his favorite grass covered paddock; hungry, lumbering beasts whose sudden power and agility belie what appears to be a docile, sedentary existence. It sounds like Joe is describing an encounter with San Diego’s Goliathan front row addition, Paddy Ryan. But he’s not waxing figuratively about tighthead props, he’s reminiscing about actual rhinos. Because, though Joe may be known for his sterling rugby resume, his true passion is thousands of miles away from California, browsing shrubs on the South African savannah.
American rugby fans were first introduced to the former Super Rugby star last June when he appeared from obscurity in the MLR Championship Series; a blond-haired bolt of lightning who unveiled a wicked sense for space and a lethal right boot that nearly propelled the San Diego Legion, against all odds, into the Championship match. Fresh off a stint for Japan’s Kamaishi Seawaves, Pietersen was looking for a fresh opportunity, perhaps in another beachside surf spot like the ones he frequented as a child in South Africa. “It just ticked all of the boxes..,” Joe recalls about his decision to drop anchor on the West Coast, adding: “I mean, It’s SoCal, right?” Yet, while he’s at home dropping onto a chest-high Mission Beach wave, he’d much rather talk about calving rituals on the Limpopo River than a six-foot swell on the Pacific.
Off the Sidelines
Joe’s concern with Africa’s most endangered species was cultivated during his formative years. His dad packed up the family during breaks from school and drove toward the famous Kruger National Park. “We just spent all of our holidays in the bush. It was magical.”
Wild and scenic places have a tendency to imprint onto the human heart, and the impact of the African landscape and its denizens on Joe and his brother Willem was profound. Willem became a game ranger, and even while Joe was making a career avoiding being trampled at Newlands Stadium for Super Rugby’s Western Province, he still spent his free time amongst the big game in Kruger.
Tracking rhinos and elephants in their natural habitat inspired the Pietersen boys, but coming to terms with the peril of the outside world to these animals was emotional whiplash. The two brothers talked not only about this dire existential threat to their beloved birthright, but the corruption of so-called anti-poaching conservationists, and inefficiencies of environmental non-profits. Then, audaciously, they resolved to get off the sidelines and into the game. “We thought, what if we could just look after one reserve? Then, we just started our own thing.” (Later adding, “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone!”) That thing would be the culmination of their childhood past and their collective vision of the future; an organization that supports anti-poaching called Nkombe Rhino, based in the heart of the Blue Canyon Conservancy in Kruger National Park.
No Ordinary Joe
Pause for a moment to consider Joe Pietersen. Sports headlines are rife with tales of narcissistic athletic icons consumed by dollars, often behaving badly. Based sheerly on his ability and success, Joe would be forgiven if he developed an oversized ego. But he hasn’t. Here is a man who has decided to channel all of his collective clout, not to pad his coffers, but to save colossal quadrupeds from extinction instead.
Head Coach of the San Diego Legion, Rob Hoadley, is effusive with his praise for the prized South African import, Pietersen. “He’s such a great family man. It’s so important for our young players to see how he lives his life.” Rob inadvertently highlights the biggest impacts of Pietersen on the team by spending five full minutes talking about his fly-half without ever mentioning rugby. Not surprisingly, the same culture-building attributes that Joe has added to the Legion’s early MLR success are also proving to be useful on the banks of the Limpopo for Nkombe Rhino, some 10,000 miles away.
Take the traits of a successful rugby team; camaraderie, buy-in, and purpose, then raise the stakes. Add AK-47s and machetes, throw in the sub-Saharan heat index, and add the survival of a species as a non-fictional narrative thread. The front line of the war on poaching is a counter-military corps of men who try to stop the poachers. This is Pietersen’s other team, a group of 12 highly trained and dedicated patrollers in Blue Canyon.
Poaching is a constant threat to the survival of the dark continent’s most majestic beasts, or as Joe offers more succinctly, “Our heritage.” Over 1,000 rhinos are killed in South Africa every year. Without efforts like Nkombe Rhino, extinction is a certainty. Myriad factors influence the disappearance of pachyderms on the African plain, but when distilled, are simply the result of a $19 billion supply and demand chain. Because it is mostly fuelled by a hot mess of eastern medical-superstition, curbing the demand for rhino horn, elephant tusk (…powdered lion bones, pangolin tail, snake penis…Seriously?!) is futile. Nkombe focuses on stunting the supply-side instead.
Paying the Rent
Many anti-poaching patrollers succumb to the lure of money. They are, after all, the keepers of the most valuable intellectual property in the national parks; knowledge of where the animals are. It is vital that they are incentivized not to “stray to the dark side,” as Joe puts it.
This is where Joe’s love of his countrymen and the animals he’s trying to protect become indistinguishable; a window into why his organization has been successful. It’s like team-building with life or death consequences. “I’ve lived a privileged life, and there are these people (Nkombe Rhino’s patrollers) fighting for our heritage, making no money. They’ve got nothing. They’re on patrol 6-7 hours a day. I just want to better their lives.” He pauses, then adds, “You don’t know the impact of a t-shirt to someone without a t-shirt.” Amen.
He once referred to his efforts as “paying the rent here on earth.” Joe doesn’t want praise. What he wants is for people to stop killing rhinos. It seems such a mind-numbingly universal desire. A species that can be traced back 50 million years is now pushed to the precipice. “They’ve been on the earth for so long, it’ll be a massive moral defeat if we wipe them out as humans.”
“This work puts my life in context,” Joe says. “I’ll never be defined by what I did on a rugby field.” Those of us that have seen Pietersen play rugby might beg to differ. However, his efforts to change the fate of South Africa’s most noble beasts will redefine the relationship between man and nature. For Joe, that’s the only big game that really matters.
To learn more about ways to get involved with Joe’s work, visit: nkomberhino.org.
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