THE LAST RHINOS (Chapter One)
It was barely light when the radio first crackled into life.
'Code red! Code red! Come in, Lawrence, come in. Over.'
'Bad morning.' The caller paused. 'We have a dead rhino at Hlaza Hill. A female. Over.'
Dread froze my blood. I looked up at the sky above the distant Hlaza Hill, the highest point on the new community game reserve that abuts Thula Thula, my own reserve and my home in Zululand, South Africa. There were no vultures and no gunshots had been reported, a sound that echoes like a thunderbolt across the African wilderness when the wind is right.
'Cause of death?' I asked, fearing the worst.
'Poachers. Both horns are gone. There's blood all over the place. Professional job. Looks like they used an AK-47, or maybe an old military-issue R1.'
I could feel my fists clenching. Rhino poachers - the disease of the wild that was now becoming a pandemic.
'How long has she been dead?' I asked.
'Can't be more than a few hours. They probably took it around midnight. There was plenty of moon to help them.'
'OK, I'll be there now. Out.'
I glanced at the pump-action shotgun leaning against the passenger seat of my Land Rover, reached for the ammunition box and stuffed my pockets with handfuls of SG cartridges. I hoped against hope that the poachers were still on the reserve.
The green-black flies were already gathering when I arrived at the hill. The air was metallic with the rank smell of blood. The rhino lay uncharacteristically on her side, legs splayed awkwardly at right angles to her stiff body.
I got out of the Land Rover and walked across to the three rangers standing nearby. Nobody said anything. The shock of the kill, the dominating presence of the huge dead creature, stifled our words.
Rhinos have an ancient, eternal beauty. With their massive bodies, clad in thick folds of prehistoric body armour topped by a magnificent scimitar horn, they fascinate like few other creatures. Weighing up to three and half tons and reaching six feet high, they are the largest land animal in the world after the elephant.
In death, there was no trace of that beauty. The regal horns, viciously hacked off with honed machetes - or pangas, as we call them in Africa - left the noble face crumpled and desecrated. The eyes gazed vacantly. Pools of blood had congealed around the grotesquely disfigured head. Without its horn, the imposing creature looked as vulnerable as a baby.
I could see my own turmoil mirrored in the rangers' faces. In Africa, the war against poachers is intensely personal. There are two types of poacher: the local tribesman looking for something small for the pot; and the heavyweights, the professional killers, who want rhino horn and elephant ivory, who will shoot a ranger then brag about it. Poaching any animal is a crime, but killing a rhino or elephant is not shooting to feed a hungry family. It's blood money. And it's an intimate, violent invasion of our lives.
'Who found the body?'
Bheki, my most trusted ranger, looked up and pointed at a young Zulu guard, Simelane, standing a little way off. I beckoned for him to come over.
'Sawubona, Simelane,' I greeted him. 'What happened here?'
'Sawubona, Mkhulu. I was on patrol when I saw the dead rhino,' he replied quietly, staring at the ground.
'Who was with you?'
'I was alone.'
'You were on patrol out here all alone?' I asked, surprised. Poaching patrols always consisted of two armed men.
'Yes, I was alone.' He was barely whispering.
I was about to press on with the questioning when a loud Zulu voice interrupted me.
'Mkhulu, there is too much blood.'
It was Bheki, down on one knee closely examining the rhino's head.
'There is too much blood,' he repeated. 'That means they were in a hurry. They took the horns while she was still alive. Maybe unconscious, but alive.'
For a moment we just stared at Bheki. Then it sank in. These monsters had hacked the horn off a living animal.
'Which way did they go?' I asked Bheki, who had been at my side in several firefights with poachers over the past decade.
He pointed east. 'Four, maybe five hours ago.'
That meant that unless they were in hiding, they would be almost out of the reserve and heading towards the townships, where we would never catch them. However, that didn't mean we wouldn't try. At the very least, it would give us something physical to do to vent our fury.
'OK, we all know the drill,' I said. 'These guys are probably carrying AKs and we all know what that means. If we make contact and they so much as think of lifting their rifles, shoot fast and shoot first, as we'll be up against automatic fire.'
I looked at the solemn faces. Armed only with shotguns and Second World War-era Lee-Enfield .303 bolt-action rifles, they were completely out-gunned, but that would not deter these hard, dedicated men for a moment. They would be facing automatic weapons, replying as fast as their wrists could work their rifle bolts. You cannot imagine the courage that takes. I had a pump-action shotgun that was fast and deadly and spread nine lead balls in a lethal cluster. Our weapons complemented each other well. The .303s had a longer range than an AK, and the shotguns at close quarters in thick bush didn't miss. Used in tandem they were a match for the illegal AK-47s so favoured by poachers. 'Bring your own water and keep your safety catches on. Let's go!' We would be moving as fast as we could in thick bush, and I didn't want anyone tripping and blasting the person ahead of them.
The going was tough and by mid-morning we were well off the beaten path, following barely discernible game trails used by the poachers. The sun burned relentlessly, a typical Zululand scorcher, and sweat poured from our bodies, stinging our eyes and drenching our shirts. But hyped up with adrenalin and anticipation, we never eased our blistering pace. If we faltered, any slim chance of catching them would be lost.
It's difficult to remain calm when you see a rhino brutally slaughtered for a horn that consists of little more than keratin, the same fibrous structural protein you find in hair and fingernails. In fact, it's impossible. You're more likely to be consumed by raging fury, but that won't do any good. Rhino horns are used for mythical medicinal purposes in countries across Asia, as part of their traditional healing systems. In traditional Chinese medicine it is believed to cure types of fever, for instance. And the increasing wealth of these economies has created an insatiable demand. Tens of thousands of rhino have been killed in Africa, with several subspecies hunted to extinction. The demand is reminiscent of a nineteenth-century gold rush, and with good reason. On the streets of China or Vietnam, ounce for ounce the horn is more valuable than gold. If you truly want to grasp the situation faced by conservationists, do what a poacher does and look at a rhino and see a three-foot-long horn made of pure gold. Game rangers are in the unenviable and extremely hazardous position of trying to protect solid gold. What should be locked securely in a vault instead walks around on four legs in the bush.
It is not an exaggeration to say that every rhino on the planet is now in mortal danger. Unless something fundamental changes, and quickly, every last one in the wild will eventually be killed.
As we pushed on, we periodically picked up traces of the killers' trail, such as footprints, a small patch of flattened grass, a marked tree or flecks of blood, probably oozing from the horn that the killers would be carrying in a hessian sack. These signs that we were on the right track provided the edge we needed, with Bheki urging us to speed up the chase.
However, Simelane, the young Zulu ranger who had discovered the dead rhino, was starting to worry me. Twice he veered off into the bush alone, following false leads and losing us valuable time. Maybe his strange behaviour was due to the stress of tracking the killers, I thought, as well as the possibility of an ambush around the next corner.
An ambush was my biggest worry. The penalty in South Africa for rhino poaching is a fifteen-year jail sentence and there was no way these professional killers were going to risk being sent away for that long. They knew it and we knew it. If the killers sensed they were being followed and were waiting for us, there is no doubt we would be in a lethal firefight - at close quarters, in thick bush, with minimum visibility and maximum chaos.
Eventually the punishing pace took its toll. I called a halt for a brief rest and sent one of the rangers ahead to high ground to try and pick them out from above.
'Nothing,' came the reply on the radio from a nearby hill. 'I see nothing.'
I could tell by the frustrated look on Bheki's face as we waited that the spoor was now cold. We were too late; and, sure enough, a couple of hours later when we finally reached the boundary fence, all we found was a slash where they had snipped through the wire, carefully avoiding the electric strands. They were well and truly gone.
'Next time,' I heard Bheki whisper as he unloaded his .303. 'We will get them next time, Mkhulu.'
I nodded silently, also unloading my shotgun as we started the long trek back.
At home, I reported the incident, first to the police and then to our local Parks authority, KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife. The latter phone call was tough, as they had just donated the now dead animal to a project I was working on. I was joining my reserve, Thula Thula, with the huge Zulu tribal trust areas to form what we believed would be one of the finest game reserves in the country. It was to be called the Royal Zulu and would be a unique joint venture with local tribes. The project would provide meaningful benefits to poor rural communities through conservation and eco-tourism, giving them a stake in the future of the African wilderness. Thanks to years of apartheid when game reserves had been racially exclusive, many rural Zulus regarded conservation as a 'white man's' concept and had little regard for it. Now we aimed to rehabilitate their traditional spiritual and cultural links to the bush that once were so powerful. We would demonstrate that poaching animals provided food for a week, but protecting them provided jobs for ever. These animals are worth infinitely more alive than dead. We had to get locals to buy into that concept with total commitment, otherwise we as conservationists would start to run out of options - as the hornless mound of rotting flesh we had just seen confirmed.
KZN Wildlife had donated four white rhinos as part of the Royal Zulu venture to provide breeding stock, and the manager I had phoned to break the news to was understandably unhappy. I knew what was coming next.
'Lawrence,' he said, 'this is really bad. We're worried about the security, man. I mean, you've got three more rhino there and we don't want to lose those as well.'
'I know. I've activated impimpis,' I replied, referring to our informants in the local tribes who we paid to collect information about poaching or theft, 'and we're increasing patrols as from tomorrow. I'm going to catch those bastards if it's the last thing I do.'
'Well, good luck. But I think in the interim, we had better get the animals into a safer area until everything settles down. Rhinos are like a bloody magnet for poachers these days.'
'OK, I understand where you're coming from,' I replied. 'But they have just been delivered to us, so how did anyone even know they were here? There had to be a tip-off from your side. How do we know they will be safer with you?'
He sighed. 'That's my biggest nightmare.'
He was a decent man whom I knew well. I also understood what he was saying, but it really galled me to be told that we were going to have to return three rhinos. Our security was by necessity among the best in the area. After all, we had been protecting a herd of elephants for almost ten years. But these days nothing, including one's own life, is guaranteed in the bush when rhino poachers are about.
However, there was nothing I could do. If the Parks authority wanted to take their animals back, so be it. Unfortunately that meant there would now be only one rhino left on the reserve, a female. A German tourist had called her Heidi, and the name had stuck. An elephant had killed her mother some years ago in a tragically unequal battle over who had right of way. She had been crushed by a full-blown charge, and I still remember standing next to the corpse and seeing a movement in the bush some yards away. It was Heidi. Barely weaned, she had watched her mother's awful fight to the death. I approached to see if she was all right, but she ran off into the bush.
Then our other rhino drowned in a flash flood, an unavoidable tragedy, which left only Heidi.
Since then Heidi, who enjoyed grazing with a herd of wildebeest, had grown up with us and become a favourite with rangers and trackers. She had matured into a beautiful creature and loved approaching the game drive vehicles, captivating visitors to the reserve with her playful antics, approaching and retreating, peering myopically and running in the flamboyant, bouncing style of rhinos. We had to do all we could to protect her now.
Yet there was something funny about the Parks Board rhino's death; something I couldn't quite put my finger on. I summoned Simelane, the guard who had discovered its carcass, to my office.
'Mkhulu,' he said as he approached, and we shook hands. Mkhulu loosely means 'grandfather' in an avuncular sort of way, and it is my Zulu nickname. Rural Zulus give nicknames to most people and some can be bitingly accurate in depicting your shortcomings, either physical or social. I was lucky; at least mine was benign. I have a friend who sometimes taps his hand rapidly when sitting. He ended up with the epithet Thathazele, meaning 'the nervous one', and the name stuck. Yet he is one of the bravest men I know.
'I see you, Simelane. Well done on finding the dead rhino.'
'How did you find it?'
'I just knew it was there.'
'Did you hear the gunshot?'
He shook his head. 'Aibo.'
'Did you see any hyenas, or maybe vultures?'
He shook his head.
'But the rhino was a long way from where you patrol, more than a mile off the path. Why were you in that area?'
'I just knew something was wrong. So I went to have a look.'
'But you somehow found the exact place. How did you do that?'
'I just felt it. Things were not right that morning.'
'OK. Thank you,' I said, purposely bringing the conversation to an end.
He left. I was now extremely suspicious. Simelane could have been telling the truth - Zulus sometimes do have a sixth sense in the bush - and he may just have thought something was wrong. But something didn't gel. I knew my game guards well and they seldom left their patrol areas. And if they did, they never went alone.
I called Bheki on his cellphone. 'Stay close to Simelane,' I said. 'Try to get his confidence and see what you can find out about him and the rhino. I don't trust him any more.'
The next day the phone rang. It was the police.
'Ja, Lawrence, we may have something,' said the sergeant, whom we had dealt with before. 'The story is that a gang, we think from Johannesburg, came here, hired a professional gunman and gave him a drawing of a rhino's head and where to shoot. X marks the spot, as they say. We're told he was paid five thousand rand [$700 US]. But you can forget about the horn. A Taiwanese ship that has been docked in Richards Bay for the past week left last night - convenient, hey? It'll be on the high seas by now and you can bet your game reserve that the horn was on it.'
Five thousand rand? The horn would sell for a fortune in the East. The fact that the gang may have come from Johannesburg, 400 miles away, also spoke volumes. This meant we were dealing with the professionals, the big boys. These were no local poachers, who usually only hunted for the pot anyway. No, these were either the Boere Mafia - a name given to a predominantly Afrikaans-speaking organization that regarded the sometimes chaotic post-apartheid South Africa as an easy way to make big money in hunting and poaching - or a Far East syndicate, getting marksmen from outside our area to do their dirty work.
'We've done the post-mortem,' the sergeant continued. 'They used an R1, similar in calibre to an AK. One bullet straight into the brain from very close.'
That too was interesting. The R1, a locally manufactured semi-automatic combat rifle, was used extensively by the South African Army during the border wars before apartheid was abolished. This could indicate that someone with former army links had supplied the weapon to the gunman, which again could point to the Boere Mafia, who dealt in anything from canned lion hunting, in which caged animals were shot from vehicles, to ivory and rhino horn.
The next morning I called my section ranger, Vusi Gumede, and asked him to send Simelane to my office. Vusi came back ten minutes later.
'Simelane hasn't reported for work today.'
'OK, take some rangers with you and go to his house. Get him here by force, if you have to.'
An hour later, Vusi returned. Simelane had packed his bags and fled. Even his wife did not know where he was.
Simelane, who knew the reserve well, had possibly taken the killers right up to the animal. Maybe he was even the shooter. I passed the information on to the police.
That evening we went out on patrol. There were just four of us: myself, Bheki and two tough game guards, Thulani and Nkonka. All of us were hoping for a contact. We wanted those poachers badly.
We walked all night along the fences, or sat for hours at lookout points, watching silently, searching for the flicker of a giveaway torchlight, constantly updating each other, whispering on walkie-talkies. But we found nothing. I fell into bed, exhausted, as the sun rose. The next night we were out again.
And the next.
The waxing gibbous moon shimmered like a beacon - poachers love to operate on bright nights. We had been patrolling for five hours and it was now just before dawn, the time of night when spirits are at their lowest ebb. Bheki and Thulani were scouring the bush about a hundred yards away, when suddenly Nkonka grabbed my arm and pointed. I immediately crouched low. He pointed again, and then I saw it: the briefest, tiniest glint of light just down the hill. This is what we had been waiting for. Slowly I thumbed the safety catch off my pump-action shotgun as we moved down to intercept them.
We got into position, took cover behind two large marula trees on the banks of a small stream and waited patiently. The adrenalin was pumping hard when two figures emerged from the dark about thirty yards away, and then they saw us and ran straight towards Nkonka, firing wildly. In an act of incredible bravery, Nkonka left his cover behind the tree, stood up and charged straight back at them, firing from the hip with his bolt-action Lee-Enfield .303. All hell broke loose as the night erupted in a cacophony of blasts and shouts. It went on for what seemed like an age, but was probably little more than ten seconds. I was swinging my shotgun back and forth looking for a target, but from my vantage point it was just shadows, and I couldn't let off a shot in case I also hit Nkonka.
Then it was silent. They had gone, melted into the bush.
'Nkonka!' I whispered desperately. 'Are you all right?'
'Yebo, Mkhulu. I am fine.' It was a miracle - he had run into a hail of bullets, returning fire with a weapon that had to be manually cocked every time he fired. And he was unscathed.
'Thank God. Well done.'
Bheki and Thulani came running over. I could see by Bheki's face that he was bitterly disappointed to have missed the action.
'Look,' said Nkonka. He shone his torch at a dark pool. Blood. One of the poachers was wounded.
'Let's go,' Bheki responded. He flashed his torch and followed the spoor as best he could. Every now and again he would lose it and we would double back to pick it up again.
Even with the light of the moon the going was too tough, and the ground too hard to hold tracks, so reluctantly we decided to go home.
The next morning I sent Bheki out to see if he could pick up the spoor again, and he managed to follow it to a hole in the fence where the poachers had escaped. He reckoned there were three of them.
He then showed me something else - one of the footprints exactly matched the trail we had been following a few days before. It was the same gang that had killed our donated rhino. It was just as I had hoped, although I couldn't believe their audacity in coming back so soon to kill yet another animal. They were obviously after Heidi.
Thanks to Nkonka, we had won the firefight with at least one casualty on their side. Now the word was out: Thula Thula was ready for anyone coming after elephant or rhino.
THE LAST RHINOS Copyright © 2012 by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence