Africa’s Rhino Race War

Should we be sav­ing the rhi­nos or the poach­ers driv­ing them to ex­tinc­tion? The an­swer’s not as easy as you might think

Newsweek - - FRONT PAGE - By Nina Burleigh

SCENE 1: Dawn, a pri­vate lodge in South Africa.

Ten guys from New York’s Long Is­land, ex­pen­sively armed and out­fit­ted, head out into the bush to hunt the king of beasts. Over nine days, ten cap­tive-bred and drugged li­ons are trans­ported to a pri­vate re­serve and then re­leased to stum­ble around in habi­tat they’ve never seen be­fore.

The hunters head out in jeeps, then climb trees, so they can aim down with high-pow­ered au­to­matic weapons at the dis­ori­ented an­i­mals. Ter­ri­fied by the fly­ing bul­lets, the li­ons—still doped-up and ac­cus­tomed to be­ing fed by hu­mans since birth—panic. They cower against fences or squeeze into warthog bur­rows, but there re­ally is no place to hide. Soon, each of these white Amer­i­cans will have a tro­phy lion head to bring back to the USA. And the worst in­juries they will have suf­fered for their ef­forts are sun­burn and a hang­over.

Scene 2: Moon­lit night, out­side Kruger Na­tional Park, South Africa’s largest pub­lic game re­serve.

Two black men slink through tall buf­falo grass on the trail of a rhino. One shoots, the mas­sive beast falls, and the shooter’s part­ner rapidly slices off its horn. The two men then flee on foot, leav­ing be­hind a grotesquely mu­ti­lated but pos­si­bly still liv­ing rhino. That horn will net enough money to buy a car and TV, as well as send their chil­dren to high school. And so they run, rac­ing through grass­lands where hip­pos and ele­phants fre­quently kill for­ag­ing hu­mans, as lion and leop­ard prowl be­hind rocks. Their goal: get­ting over one of the great fences that de­lin­eate pub­lic and pri­vate land be­fore white mer­ce­nary sol­diers with night-vi­sion gog­gles hunt them down and kill them.

$3,000 PER POUND

THE BILL­BOARDS start ap­pear­ing miles from Kruger park: “Poach­ers will be poached.” For il­lit­er­ate poach­ers, an­other sign reads, “De­horned zone,” with a pic­ture of a liv­ing rhino with­out its horn (some pri­vate game own­ers re­move rhino horns to de­ter poach­ing).

The iconic Big Five an­i­mals tro­phy hunters covet are lion, rhino, ele­phant, Cape buf­falo and leop­ard, but it is the en­dan­gered rhino that has be­come a po­tent sym­bol for the ugly in­equal­ity be­tween whites and blacks in post-apartheid South Africa.

The rhi­noc­eros’s blood­lines stretch back to a gi­ant rel­a­tive that roamed lush grass­lands 30 mil­lion years ago. “It is a mir­a­cle that this pre­his­toric id­iot still ex­ists,” wrote T. Mur­ray Smith, former pres­i­dent of the East Africa Pro­fes­sional Hunters As­so­ci­a­tion. For thousands of years, the primeval beast’s de­scen­dants roamed the grass­lands of Asia and Africa by the mil­lions, but now fewer than 20,000 of them roam free. South Africa is home to 79 per­cent of the world’s rhi­nos, and half of them live in Kruger park. Rhino numbers there and world­wide have been plum­met­ing since Asian de­mand for their horns ex­ploded about 10 years ago, af­ter a Viet­namese gen­eral de­clared that pow­dered rhino horn had cured his cancer. Rhino horn sells for $3,000 a pound, which can turn poach­ers into kings in vil­lages with­out run­ning wa­ter or elec­tric­ity.

South Africa’s apartheid ended in the 1990s, but black lead­ers from Nel­son Man­dela to the cur­rent pres­i­dent, Ja­cob Zuma, could not break eco­nomic apartheid. Whites own more than 80 per­cent of the land in South Africa. The slow pace of change has en­abled rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal lead­ers like Julius Malema, who calls for black land recla­ma­tion, to gain a strong fol­low­ing and ter­rify the white mi­nor­ity that owns the land. Malema has made a ca­reer of stok­ing rage. In 2012, the rul­ing African Na­tional Congress party ex­pelled him for pub­licly singing an out­lawed African song with lyrics con­tain­ing the phrase “Dubula ibuni” (“Shoot the Boer”).

White col­o­niz­ers cre­ated Kruger park in 1898 by declar­ing it terra nul­lius— empty land—ig­nor­ing in­dige­nous prop­erty and hunt­ing rights, as well as an­ces­tral burial grounds. The old tribal an­i­mist tra­di­tions quickly be­came use­less in ur­ban slums and com­mu­nal vil­lages, where the only an­i­mals most of South Africa’s blacks

en­counter are scro­fu­lous dogs. Dur­ing apartheid, some lo­cal vil­lagers still hunted on un­claimed land around Kruger, but in 1993, the year apartheid ended, the South African gov­ern­ment in­sti­tuted the Game Theft Act, which de­creed that who­ever put en­clo­sures around land con­tain­ing wild game ef­fec­tively owned it, along with what­ever an­i­mals it con­tained. Long rows of elec­tri­fied fences went up overnight, mark­ing off hun­dreds of miles of newly pri­vate wild an­i­mal range. In ru­ral ar­eas, gen­er­a­tions of black men and boys have been cut off from a tra­di­tional rite of pas­sage: hunt­ing a wild an­i­mal. Tribes whose an­ces­tors would kill a Cape buf­falo when­ever a chief died in or­der to bury him in its hide can­not af­ford the hunt­ing li­censes tro­phy hunters buy for tens or even hun­dreds of thousands of dol­lars. Many can’t af­ford the $5 daily adult en­try fee to Kruger park.

Ex­tinc­tion now threat­ens many game species, and the de­mand for ac­cess to them from wealthy tourists and hunters is in­creas­ing. That means in­di­vid­ual wild an­i­mals can be worth as much as a mil­lion dol­lars to a white landowner, and lodge guests pay big bucks to see not just one or two gi­raffes and ele­phants but all the an­i­mals. That means the lodges need to bring more an­i­mals closer to their prop­erty, so some own­ers lay out food to lure great cats and her­bi­vores within view­ing dis­tance and have hired mer­ce­nary armies to pro­tect the an­i­mals.

Those mer­ce­nar­ies, nearly all white, are hunt­ing poach­ers, nearly all black. That’s how the most Juras­sic of an­i­mals walk­ing the Earth to­day ended up in the mid­dle of an in­creas­ingly bloody race war.


SIT­TING UN­DER a tree dur­ing a three­month African sa­fari in the 1930s, Ernest Hem­ing­way wrote this note for his mem­oir Green Hills of Africa: “I ex­pected, al­ways, to be killed by one thing or an­other and I, truly, did not mind that any­more.”

The iconic an­i­mals of Africa have al­ways in­spired both fear and courage in white men like Papa Hem­ing­way. To sleep near them in the bush at night, to hear their shrieks, roars and growls, to be close enough to smell them, or to en­counter them face-to-face at dawn or dusk is a pri­mal thrill that can­not be found in cities or cul­ti­vated lands.

A brief en­counter with na­ture “red in tooth and claw” is per­haps the great­est of the white priv­i­leges for sale in Africa. Tourists and tro­phy hunters pay $80 bil­lion an­nu­ally to pho­to­graph—and for a pre­mium, to kill—the great beasts of Africa. The pres­i­dent’s sons Don­ald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are avid tro­phy hunters whose self-sat­is­fied self­ies with car­casses of the Big Five are on­line. But mod­ern tro­phy hunt­ing—li­ons raised in cages and rich Amer­i­cans shoot­ing at them from mov­ing ve­hi­cles—barely

“It is a mir­a­cle that this pre­his­toric id­iot still ex­ists.”

re­sem­bles the sa­faris that en­thralled Hem­ing­way. The chief dan­ger now is in­di­ges­tion af­ter too many trips to the lodge’s groan­ing boards.

But while gi­raffes, ze­bras, ele­phants, li­ons, ba­boons and warthogs stalk, clam­ber and strut across the veld, the one thing tourists and hunters will rarely see on a South African sa­fari is a black South African. They work at the lodges, and some­times a black “tracker” sits on a high seat af­fixed to the hood of the sa­fari truck, track­ing the old-fash­ioned way, be­fore the era of GPS, drones and track­ing-col­lared an­i­mals. Na­tive black track­ers who learned their skills from prior gen­er­a­tions have be­come as rare as the rhino. Most black South Africans have not en­coun­tered wild an­i­mals for gen­er­a­tions.

The poach­ers who track rhino on foot are a lot more like Hem­ing­way and Teddy Roo­sevelt than the pudgy Amer­i­can tro­phy hunters of to­day. They clam­ber over park fences or are driven in through the gates by ac­com­plices. Armed with Czech-made CZ ri­fles, they sleep rough for days, brav­ing heat, thorny bush, deadly snakes, li­ons and even ram­pag­ing ele­phants. If they find a rhino, they shoot it and saw off the horn, leav­ing the dead an­i­mal in the bush to be found—or not. Vul­tures cir­cling over a dead rhino are na­ture’s first alert to rangers and mer­ce­nar­ies, so to gain more time to es­cape, poach­ers have poi­soned vast numbers of Kruger park vul­tures.

If a poacher makes it over the near­est fence with his tro­phy, he can sup­port an ex­tended fam­ily for a gen­er­a­tion. If he gets caught—and many do—he can go to prison or be killed on the spot. The re­ward is so great and the poverty so deep in South Africa that there’s an in­ex­haustible sup­ply of young men sign­ing up for the job.


TO STOP POACH­ERS, South African landown­ers and Kruger park have hired bat­tal­ions of mer­ce­nar­ies and spent mil­lions equip­ping them with high-tech gear, planes and drones. They come from all over the world but are usu­ally white. Re­cently, Vet­paw, which hires and sends mer­ce­nar­ies to the Kruger area, be­gan re­cruit­ing Amer­i­can veter­ans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to go to South Africa to put their train­ing to work on a mis­sion they can feel good about—pro­tect­ing the rhino.

The ground around one mer­ce­nary “for­ward oper­at­ing base” I vis­ited was dec­o­rated with bleached buf­falo and ele­phant skulls. The mer­ce­nar­ies use this hut as a head­quar­ters and are dis­patched in teams to sleep in the bush for a week at a time. Us­ing mod­ern com­bat tech­nol­ogy, they track, hunt and some-

“We are us­ing rhino horn to free our­selves.”

times kill poach­ers. The law al­lows them to shoot only af­ter they are shot at, but as one mer­ce­nary told me, “What hap­pens in the bush stays in the bush.”

Con­ser­va­tion­ists counted 6,094 poached rhi­nos be­tween 2008 and 2016, with the vast ma­jor­ity killed in South Africa. No one knows how many black men have been killed in the bush while try­ing to kill rhino, but the pres­i­dent of Mozam­bique last year com­plained that 500 men had been shot in and around the park. Some es­ti­mate the num­ber could be in the thousands.

A lean, re­tired South African army of­fi­cer we will call Of­fi­cer A., be­cause he re­fused to speak on the record, works for a con­sor­tium of pri­vate landown­ers. “This is my 14th war,” he says. “It’s like go­ing to war in An­gola.”

When the mer­ce­nar­ies catch poach­ers, they are sup­posed to bring them to the lo­cal jail. But Of­fi­cer A. says lo­cal au­thor­i­ties don’t hold them for long, and the cases against them never stick: Non­ster­ile ev­i­dence rooms are stacked with uniden­ti­fied weapons; noth­ing is bagged; there’s no chain of ev­i­dence. He claims even fin­ger­print­ing is use­less be­cause the ru­ral po­lice sta­tions’ paper record­keep­ing is a sham­bles. Even if Of­fi­cer A. did have a shot at mak­ing se­ri­ous cases, he thinks the poach­ing would con­tinue. “These are in­side jobs,” he says. “Lots of South Africans take jobs at the parks in or­der to be near the poach­ing. The hor­ri­ble truth is, the rangers can’t be trusted.”

Of­fi­cer A. says with ad­mi­ra­tion that the poach­ers are ex­tremely fit and adds that he’d have more suc­cess if the au­thor­i­ties would let him hunt them with dogs. “If you can find the guy with three hours left to the gate on foot, you can catch him. But they run. If we had dogs, the guy gets torn apart.”

Of­fi­cer A. be­lieves the best thing wildlife con­ser­va­tion­ists could do to save the rhino would be to set up a le­gal de­fense fund for him if he gets ar­rested. “I don’t care—i will be the test case.”


THE TRO­PHY HUNTERS are mostly white Amer­i­cans, al­though there are plenty of mon­eyed Euro­peans and Rus­sians. They are al­most al­ways men and, cu­ri­ously, of­ten have med­i­cal de­grees. They pay from $30,000 to $100,000 for the right to kill one of the Big Five—the Amer­i­can lobby group Sa­fari Club In­ter­na­tional auc­tions off hunts for as much as $300,000 at its an­nual con­ven­tion in Las Ve­gas. The money helps pay for the in­tense lob­by­ing of gov­ern­ments and in­ter­na­tional wildlife con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions, which are un­der pres­sure to ban or se­verely re­strict tro­phy hunts.

In 2015, tro­phy hunt­ing made head­lines when Min­nesota den­tist Wal­ter Palmer killed Ce­cil, the largest male lion in a pride in the Hwange Na­tional Park in Zim­babwe. Palmer’s guide had lured the lion off pro­tected ter­ri­tory with an ele­phant carcass. In death, Ce­cil—who had been fit­ted with a track­ing col­lar

by re­searchers—be­came a mar­tyr and an icon, with an out­raged so­cial me­dia fol­low­ing bay­ing for a ban on tro­phy hunt­ing. In re­sponse, the Zim­bab­wean gov­ern­ment charged Palmer’s lo­cal guide (who is white) with hunt­ing with­out a permit, then dropped the charge in 2016. (It has not dropped a sim­i­lar charge against the black Zim­bab­wean landowner where the kill oc­curred.) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice ruled that Amer­i­can hunters bring­ing tro­phy an­i­mals home had to prove they were not from pro­tected ar­eas.

Other than that, Ce­cil’s death didn’t change much. In July, an­other Amer­i­can tro­phy hunter blasted an­other col­lared lion out­side the same park. The lat­est tro­phy was a son of Ce­cil named Xanda.

The dwin­dling sup­ply of li­ons drives a new and grow­ing in­dus­try in South Africa: wild game farm­ing for “canned hunts.” Be­cause tro­phy hunters will pay a pre­mium for a guar­an­teed kill, wildlife ranch­ing has be­come such a big busi­ness in South Africa that it is draw­ing food and wa­ter re­sources away from tra­di­tional agri­cul­ture. To make ex­tra-large li­ons, breed­ers are now cross-breed­ing li­ons with tigers to make “ligers.” Be­cause tro­phy hunters prize rar­ity, breed­ers also con­jure up blue-eyed white li­ons. All are born and raised for one pur­pose: Their taxi­der­mied heads will some­day dec­o­rate the den of a château in Brus­sels or a Mc­man­sion in Peo­ria.


WHITE LANDOWN­ERS are also farm­ing rhi­nos—thousands now breed and live in cap­tiv­ity, and de­spite con­ser­va­tion­ists’ ef­forts to change the law, South Africa al­lows rhino horn to be traded do­mes­ti­cally. Rhi­nos can and do live with­out their horns, and that’s why some farm­ers are not ter­ri­bly ea­ger to cur­tail the Asian de­mand that in­spires the poach­ers. That is an­other stark in­equity in the rhino wars: White farm­ers can sell horn, but blacks are shot for steal­ing it.

To ask about the poacher’s side of this war is, as South African con­ser­va­tion­ist Martin Born­man, man­ager of the eco-tourism op­er­a­tion African Con­ser­va­tion Ex­pe­ri­ence, puts it, like try­ing to de­fend child rape. No one wants to hear it. “But there is a grow­ing sense with re­spect to the poach­ers,” he says, “that white peo­ple get away with mur­der.”

Black vil­lagers see poach­ing as both a right and a ne­ces­sity. An­nette Hub­schle, a crim­i­nol­o­gist and re­searcher with the Cape Town En­vi­ron­men­tal Ob­ser­va­tory, calls poach­ing a protest against the “sys­tem­atic ex­clu­sion” of blacks from game re­serves. She found vil­lagers along the park who see the poach­ers as Robin Hoods, even though many of them have long crim­i­nal ca­reers, in­clud­ing mur­der and gun and drug crimes. “We are us­ing rhino horn to free our­selves,” one horn

king­pin told her.

As vil­lagers tac­itly sup­port the poach­ers, mer­ce­nar­ies have stepped up their bru­tal cam­paign to drive them out. In an in­ter­view last year, a 23-year-old man named Sbon­iso Mh­longo de­scribed a mass night­time roundup of black males around the edge of Kruger park. “I was sleep­ing, it was rain­ing, and it was 1 o’clock, and I was shocked when peo­ple ar­rived, banged the door and broke win­dows,” Mh­longo said. “These peo­ple walked in with a white man and asked me for a gun. Then I was shack­led, and I wasn’t given any an­swers. I was dragged out­side into a truck.”

The truck col­lected more men from nearby vil­lages, and even­tu­ally, Mh­longo said, the blacks were taken out of the truck one by one, in­ter­ro­gated and then “beaten un­til we couldn’t breathe. Beaten to a pulp. And then we were dropped off at home af­ter­wards.”

Mh­longo said “these peo­ple” came to his house three times, al­ways at night. The other two times, he hid while they ran­sacked his home.

Poach­ers also at­tack hu­mans. One gang is be­lieved to have killed a vet­eri­nar­ian in front of his wife and baby near Kruger park in 2009. An­other crew of poach­ers re­cently at­tacked an an­i­mal refuge cen­ter, killed and de­horned rhino and raped a vol­un­teer.

But the ad hoc, pri­vate, mil­i­tary-style re­sponse to the rhino war is “prim­ing a mas­sive, ex­plo­sive sit­u­a­tion,” Born­man says, “which, of course, will go way be­yond wild an­i­mals.”


THE LOB­BY­ISTS for tro­phy hunt­ing in­sist they are true con­ser­va­tion­ists be­cause their money sup­ports habi­tat—pri­vate, nona­gri­cul­tural land—where those crea­tures they want to shoot at can roam. Hunt­ing fees helped fi­nance an ef­fort to bring up the white rhino pop­u­la­tion af­ter the an­i­mal was nearly poached and hunted to ex­tinc­tion in the 1960s and 1970s. But con­ser­va­tion­ists with non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions in­volved in global wildlife pro­tec­tion ad­mit that al­low­ing rich, white peo­ple to kill iconic game, while ar­rest­ing and some­times killing poor blacks who do the same thing, pours fuel on South Africa’s po­lit­i­cal fires.

Some con­ser­va­tion­ists are push­ing mas­sive re­lo­ca­tion pro­grams. Since poach­ers wiped out the rhi­nos in Botswana, groups like the World Wildlife Fund and other deep-pock­eted con­ser­va­tion­ists have been re­lo­cat­ing South African rhi­nos to ar­eas in Botswana that are sparsely pop­u­lated, where the rhi­nos are be­lieved to be safer. But the price is pro­hib­i­tive—tens of thousands of dol­lars to dart each an­i­mal with tran­quil­iz­ers and chop­per it across bor­ders. And while that’s good for the rhino, it’s deadly for the South African tourist econ­omy.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists have ex­per­i­mented with pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships to in­volve black com­mu­ni­ties in wildlife tourism. But apartheid has left such a legacy of deep racial dis­trust that co­op­er­a­tive ef­forts that have worked in coun­tries like Kenya and Tan­za­nia don’t take in South Africa, says a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of one of the largest global con­ser­va­tion en­ti­ties (who asked to re­main anony­mous).

To white South Africans, rhi­nos and the other iconic an­i­mals are “in­cred­i­bly emo­tional,” Born­man says. They are what makes Africa special. That’s not true in black com­mu­ni­ties. “Here, you see the seeds of the racial dis­con­nect,” he says. “And if you went to the fu­neral of a poacher, you would see this per­son is revered, and it’s not shame­ful.”

The late South African jour­nal­ist God­knows Nare last year recorded a poacher’s fu­neral. June Mabuse, the dead man’s brother, ad­dressed the mourn­ers and com­plained that the fam­ily had re­ceived no in­for­ma­tion about how or why he was shot, and had been barred from per­form­ing tra­di­tional death rit­u­als near where he was killed.

“Our grand­fa­thers were kicked out, and now we can’t even step in be­cause it’s a game re­serve,” Mabuse said. “Our gov­ern­ment and for­eign coun­tries should plead for us to be able to go in­side, be­cause those an­i­mals, first of all, are not theirs—they are God’s cre­ation. To­day, we are be­ing killed like an­i­mals, which makes me won­der: Which life is more im­por­tant, ours or the an­i­mals? It seems like the an­i­mals are now more valu­able than hu­man life. Be­cause we are poor. There is no work, and peo­ple are go­ing in there to try and put food on their ta­bles. They are be­ing killed.... Thousands have been killed in that park. And only hun­dreds of an­i­mals.”

Brian Jones runs a large an­i­mal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter near Kruger park, nurs­ing wounded an­i­mals back to health, be­fore he tries to re-wild them. An evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian who be­lieves hu­man­ity is in the bib­li­cal last days, he de­plores rhino poach­ing and the poi­son­ing of vul­tures to hide the poach­ers’ work. But he also rec­og­nizes the racial com­po­nent in all this. He says black rangers call the white rangers “white dogs,” while whites call blacks “kaf­fir,” an out­lawed word com­pa­ra­ble in of­fen­sive­ness to the N-word in the United States.

“The Big Five are found nowhere else, and we have killed most of them,” Jones says. “Now there are no an­i­mals left. We kicked out the blacks. My African staff are not in­volved in wildlife at all. They are get­ting killed”—by mer­ce­nar­ies and by wild an­i­mals in the bush—“and get­ting no com­pen­sa­tion for it. Their kids don’t even know an­i­mals. Here is how they look at it: “Are you say­ing you pre­fer a rhino to a black man?”

For many white hunters, sa­fari tourists and con­ser­va­tion­ists from around the world, the an­swer is yes.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists es­ti­mate the num­ber of men killed in Kruger park could be in the thousands.

RIGGED GAME: Hunters pay up to $100,000 to shoot wild an­i­mals. Some, like this ele­phant, threaten vil­lagers and crops.

OUT­GUNNED: These sus­pected poach­ers were caught in Kruger Na­tional Park with a .375 hunt­ing ri­fle fit­ted with a si­lencer. Many of the mer­ce­nar­ies hired to track poach­ers are equipped with the lat­est com­bat gear.

RE­LO­CA­TION FEES: One strat­egy for sav­ing the en­dan­gered rhi­nos is to move them to parks that don’t al­low hunt­ing. But this is pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive and hurts tourism in South Africa.

HUNT­ING HU­MANS: Park rangers use chop­pers to pa­trol the vast land they are try­ing to pro­tect.

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