Former US Air Force’s rescue wing executive officer, Major Scott Williams, was sent to South Africa ahead of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. His mission was to work with local law enforcement agencies. Today… he’s still here. This is the story of a highly trained combat veteran, turned conservationist.
Every day 20 US combat veterans commit suicide,” says former US Air Force pilot Scott Williams. “We’re striving to offer US Army vets a different option, to come to South Africa and put their experience to good use, and to learn to adjust and lead a normal life again.” But the Veterans programme is just one of the many projects the enigmatic Williams is busy with. Another is a 10 000ha reserve in the Baviaanskloof, in the Eastern Cape. His Solve.IT organisation offers a different and innovative alternative to conservation and global issues such as wildlife, water, food and natural resource security.
He’s also a petrolhead. He’s owned a 1955 Chevy two-door wagon that was powered by a modified, supercharged V8 engine. With nitrous oxide gas. Now presiding in South Africa with his environmentalist wife Greta and their two kids, Major Williams offers some fascinating insights into the conservation world of the future.
What was your first car? A 1968 Jeep CJ5, with a Buick V6 engine.
What is your favourite car that you’ve owned or driven? That must be the Chevy Wagon with the V8, supercharger and gas. It was a real blast.
Tell us more about Solve.IT. Essentially, we look at ways technology and data acquisition can improve conservation. As a former soldier, I don’t believe the future of conserving endangered animals such as the rhino will be secured by increasing armed rangers on the ground. The problem is far too big for that. The Kruger National Park is the same size as Israel, and you have less than 250 rangers trying to keep it secure. There are aircraft yes, but if the planes don’t have a specific target they are looking for, and area to look in, flying up and down borders just equates to wasting money.
Our eventual plan is to use data acquired from a variety of sources to manage the situation better. We’ll be able to monitor each animal remotely, from a central control room. This way we can direct the aircraft and feet on the ground as required. We will also be able to better manage humans. When a ranger says he patrolled a specific area, we sometimes find that this ranger was actually asleep under a tree for 10 hours, and didn’t do any patrolling. We’ll be able to keep rangers safer; our data will enable us to manage a potential combat situation with poachers. In other words, we can direct them remotely as to the best tactical options.
So it will be like Jurassic Park, of sorts? It’s the same principle, yes. There will be huge advantages for the safari industry, too. We will be able to recognise, through our deep data analysis, when a cheetah is on the hunt. So we can direct game viewers to that cheetah’s location. In future, when a safari client wants to see a buffalo, and only a buffalo, we can send the game ranger directly to the buffalo.
Do you think this type of game viewing will be popular in future? Look at the youngsters today; they easily master the intricacies of a smartphone. Us older lot will happily drive around the whole day looking for a buffalo under a tree. And if we don’t find one, well, then that’s just the way it is. The youngsters want instant information, and lots of it. With our data acquisition system, we send them straight to the buffalo. They point their smartphone at the animal and all the latest data is transferred to the phone: how far the buffalo was chased by a lion earlier that day, how much water he drank that morning, his migration patterns… everything you can think of.
The big question: where do you reckon we will be in 20 years’ time, with rhino poaching and conservation of other endangered wildlife? The human race is continually developing and expanding, and it will become increasingly difficult to justify a massive conservation area such as the Kruger Park. Instead I believe future conservation areas will be much smaller, and with the tech available, offer visitors a much more rewarding experience. By knowing where everything is, rangers will be able to show their clients the Big Five in a matter of hours.
Taking it one step further, I believe automation and robots are the way of the future, too. You’ll have an automated vehicle transporting tourists on a game drive, with on-board interactive displays and massive amounts of information available at the touch of a button. Rhino? With the current trends, who knows if there will be any left in 20 years. What I do know is that more armed feet on the ground, combatting poachers, is not a realistic long-term solution. Managing wildlife more efficiently is.
And the combat veteran rehabilitation programme? When you are a combat veteran, you possess some specific skills. This may range from sharp-shooting skills, radio work, combat medical service… the list goes on and on. We bring vets out here and use them to train, for instance, game rangers in a specific specialist field, be it sharp shooting, radios, or whatever. So that invaluable experience is passed on to another. At the same time, while this training takes place, the vet lives and interacts with the trainees and other people on a daily basis.
While that vet trains his charges, they in turn help the vet to readjust to other people. This is the biggest issue for combat vets; readjusting to a normal lifestyle where they don’t have to shoot at people or get shot at. The vets convey their knowledge to the trainees. And the trainees help the vets adjust to a civilian, non-combat life.
If money was absolutely no object, and you could pick any vehicle to conduct your research, what would it be? Now you’re talking. I’m busy building it right now: It’s a Mercedes-Benz 4×4 buggy… so a buggy based on the amazing Unimog chassis.
In a (favourite) nutshell
Food Authentic Mexican
TV show Diesel Brothers (Discovery channel)
Movie The Outsiders
Band/singer The Parlotones
Place on Earth Baviaanskloof
Camping site Tuinskloof (in Baviaanskloof)
Text: Danie Botha