March 3, 2013

'When I help a rhino, I get the feeling I did when playing for my country'

Moving on from the eye injury that ended his cricket career, Mark Boucher is now devoting his time to protecting endangered animals

A rhinoceros' eyesight is so poor that it can't see someone standing motionless 30 metres away. For most of his life, that factoid would not have meant much to Mark Boucher, until one horrible day in July last year when he was forced to look at the world somewhat the same way.

His left eye was punctured during a tour match in Taunton, and it not only ended his cricket career, it changed his life. He has since had to adjust to vision in one eye that is like seeing through "binoculars that are out of focus". Not only is his vision narrower, because it is confined to one side of his face, it is also blurred.

But what is completely clear to him is Boucher's new mission: to save the rhino. Soon after he returned from England and completed many sessions in surgery, Boucher took time off in the African bush, which has long been a favourite haunt: he owns a house with Albie Morkel near Kruger National Park.

One night, while enjoying a braai, rangers told the two how desperate the rhino situation had become. Almost two are poached every day, their horns hacked off and sold for more than the price of gold, at close to US$66,000 per kilo. Rhino horn is in great demand because it is believed to cure diseases. As a result of that myth, estimates are that by 2025 the animal will be extinct.

The scourge has gone on for so long because, in many cases, officials are unable to prosecute suspected poachers since they cannot trace them. But recent research shows that DNA from a deceased rhino can be linked to its horn and, by implication, the person who traded the horn can be prosecuted.

Of course rhinos cannot simply be asked to line up and provide DNA. Sourcing that information is a costly, time-consuming and dangerous task. The rhino has to be tracked and tranquilised before a sample can be taken.

Getting to see it at first-hand drove Boucher's interest in conservation efforts. He watched as a rhino was found and tranquilised, blindfolded so as not to unsettle it, and a syringe used to obtain a DNA sample. As he and the others involved - enough people to fill five vehicles - prepared to leave, the rhino began to stir. Everyone hurriedly got back into their cars but Boucher lingered as the two-ton beast groggily began to move towards the party. Boucher got into a 4x4 but let his leg dangle outside. The rhino approached but didn't seem menacing. As Boucher withdrew his leg, the animal placed its foot on the same spot and looked up at him.

"You can read whatever you want into that but it really struck me," Boucher told ESPNcricinfo. "Donne Commins [his agent] was almost in tears, and she said to me that maybe it was the rhino's way of saying thank you and telling me I was doing the right thing. When the rhino stood up, I got the same feeling I used to get doing well for my country on the cricket field. It's a very passionate feeling and I know that I am doing something good."

Boucher's foundation aims to raise R1 million (about $111,111) as soon as possible to fund the compilation of the DNA database. They already have high-profile patrons, including conservationist Dr Ian Player (golfer Gary's brother), who spearheaded the widely acclaimed Operation Rhino initiative in the 1960s.

Back then there were only 300 rhino left after many were killed in an effort to protect livestock, but Player established breeding colonies to keep them alive and to help their numbers grow. "He is too old at the moment to be out in the field, but he would love to be out there doing the work," Boucher said of Player. "I don't think I'll ever be as great as him, but at least I am fighting his cause."

Never one to second-guess himself before the accident, Boucher is now a much quieter and more circumspect person. He has withdrawn a little and his perspectives have changed as he confronts life from a different angle. He is even a little less feisty.

"I enjoy the coaching side and the physical of things more than something like commentary, and there have been a few opportunities for me"

But some things have stayed the same. He is still involved in his second-favourite sport, golf, which he is grateful to have more time for, and he still maintains friendships with the men he played cricket with. Jacques Kallis remains his best mate, and the pair is involved in a business venture together. Their wine label, The Innings, finally came to fruition after Boucher's retirement. "When we played against Australia in 2009, we met the guys from Rietvallei farm, because they wanted to be one of our bat sponsors. Jacques and I thought, 'Imagine if we could do some wine together', and they said it would be possible. So we went out to the farm just outside Cape Town."

They opted for one red and one white wine and blended the red themselves "using test tubes of different wines that we mixed together to see what we liked best". The red is a smooth Cabernet Sauvignon that won gold at one of the country's premier wine awards, while the white, a fresh Sauvignon Blanc, claimed silver. "Both are a celebration of our careers, and we drink them when are sitting around a fire and relaxing," Boucher said.

Not that he does that too often. Although his work on the cricket field is over, Boucher does not have that much time off. The rhino project apart, he remains involved with the national team, and he was recently used as a mentor to the T20 and ODI squads, where he dealt with everything from training the young wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock to helping the rest of the group with their mental approaches.

"I enjoy the coaching side and the physical of things more than something like commentary, and there have been a few opportunities for me. Nothing is cast in stone but I am considering a few things. I don't want to put too much pressure on myself in the next year. I want to get this eye sorted out and keep doing what I am doing."

He has a few more operations to go through, though the chances of him regaining full sight in his left eye are all but gone. Doctors have warned him that he could end up only seeing shapes in the shadows on one side, much like the beloved animals he has bonded with. For now, that's good enough for Boucher.

"I will always miss that feeling of performing well for my country, because I will probably never feel that again. But that's life. Time waits for no one. I've got over that feeling now.

"When I help a rhino, I get that same feeling. From that perspective I've replaced it. Maybe one day I'll move on to lions or some other animals, whatever needs me."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent