Published: March 2012

Rhino Wars

Photo: Hornless black rhino

Rhino Wars

Rivaling the price of gold on the black market, rhino horn is at the center of a bloody poaching battle.

By Peter Gwin
Photograph by Brent Stirton

The rifle shot boomed through the darkening forest just as Damien Mander arrived at his campfire after a long day training game ranger recruits in western Zimbabwe's Nakavango game reserve. His thoughts flew to Basta, a pregnant black rhinoceros, and her two-year-old calf. That afternoon one of his rangers had discovered human footprints following the pair's tracks as Basta sought cover in deep bush to deliver the newest member of her threatened species.

Damien, a hard-muscled former Australian Special Forces sniper with an imposing menagerie of tattoos, including "Seek & Destroy" in gothic lettering across his chest, swiveled his head, trying to place the direction of the shot. "There, near the eastern boundary," he pointed into the blackness. "Sounded like a .223," he said, identifying the position and caliber, a habit left over from 12 tours in Iraq. He and his rangers grabbed shotguns, radios, and medical kits and piled into two Land Cruisers. They roared into the night, hoping to cut off the shooter. The rangers rolled down their windows and listened for a second shot, which would likely signal Basta's calf was taken as well.

It was an ideal poacher's setup: half-moon, almost no wind. The human tracks were especially ominous. Poaching crews often pay trackers to find the rhinos, follow them until dusk, then radio their position to a shooter with a high-powered rifle. After the animal is down, the two horns on its snout are hacked off in minutes, and the massive carcass is left to hyenas and vultures. Nearly always the horns are fenced to an Asian buyer; an enterprising crew might also cut out Basta's fetus and the eyes of the mother and calf to sell to black magic or muti practitioners. If this gang was well organized, a group of heavily armed men would be covering the escape route, ready to ambush the rangers.

As the Land Cruiser bucked over rutted tracks, Damien did a quick calculation—between his vehicles he had two antiquated shotguns with about a dozen shells. Based on the sound of the shot, the poachers held an advantage in firepower. If the rangers did pick up a trail and followed on foot, they would have to contend with lions, leopards, and hyenas out hunting in the dark.

In the backseat of one of the speeding Land Cruisers, Benzene, a Zimbabwean ranger who had spent nearly a year watching over Basta and her calf and knew the pair intimately, loaded three shells into his shotgun, flicked on the safety, and chambered a round. As we bounced into the night, he said, "It is better for the poachers if they meet a lion than if they meet us."

AND SO GOES A NIGHT on the front lines of southern Africa's ruthless and murky rhino war, which since 2006 has seen more than a thousand rhinos slaughtered, some 22 poachers gunned down and more than 200 arrested last year in South Africa alone. At the bloody heart of this conflict is the rhino's horn, a prized ingredient in traditional Asian medicines. Though black market prices vary widely, as of last fall dealers in Vietnam quoted prices ranging from $33 to $133 a gram, which at the top end is double the price of gold and can exceed the price of cocaine.

Although the range of the two African species—the white rhino and its smaller cousin, the black rhino—has been reduced primarily to southern Africa and Kenya, their populations had shown encouraging improvement. In 2007 white rhinos numbered 17,470, while blacks had nearly doubled to 4,230 since the mid '90s.

For conservationists these numbers represented a triumph. In the 1970s and '80s, poaching had devastated the two species. Then China banned rhino horn from traditional medicine, and Yemen forbade its use for ceremonial dagger handles. All signs seemed to point to better days. But in 2008 the number of poached rhinos in South Africa shot up to 83, from just 13 in 2007. By 2010 the figure had soared to 333, followed by over 400 last year. Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network, found most of the horn trade now leads to Vietnam, a shift that coincided with a swell of rumors that a high-ranking Vietnamese official used rhino horn to cure his cancer.

Meanwhile in South Africa, attracted by spiraling prices—and profits—crime syndicates began adding rhino poaching to their portfolios.

GIDEON VAN DEVENTER KNOWS the exact spot—six inches behind the eye and two inches in front of the ear—to put a 300-grain bullet so that it pierces the rhino's brain, causing the animal to collapse on its chest. He approximates the spot on his own head, tapping a callused index finger just behind his cheekbone. "You have to hit it right there. They have a tiny brain," he says. "But they're nearly blind, so you can move in close. They can smell you, so you stay downwind. And they've got good hearing, so you watch their ears. If one of those ears flicks toward you, trouble's coming." He also knows a technique that investigators say is the sign of an expert: slice a penknife around the seam at the horn's base and you can pry it off with little effort: "You don't need a saw. It's quick, and the entire horn comes off clean, just like a bottle cap."

I'm receiving this poaching tutorial at Kroonstad prison, about two hours south of Johannesburg, and van Deventer, 42, who goes by Deon, is an especially qualified teacher. By his own admission he's killed 22 rhinos, a number that makes him South Africa's, and possibly the world's, most prolific convicted rhino poacher. A five-foot-seven knot of sinew and nervous energy, he sits ramrod straight in an orange prison jumpsuit and heavy black work boots. His weathered face, thinning ginger hair, and ice blue eyes give him a passing resemblance to the actor Ed Harris.

Deon's father moved to South Africa from Kenya, where he had been a police officer during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s and a big game hunter. He settled in the Transvaal, not far from the Botswana border, an area still largely wild. Deon and his two brothers practically lived in the bush; by age eight he was skipping school to track game for hunters. "I came to know animals better than people," he says.

Eventually, he became a professional big game hunter, or "PH" in local vernacular. "Preparation and tracking, that was my thing," he says. On one hunt, he guided an elderly American hunter through a Mozambique swamp, following a herd of African buffalo. "I knew there was a small island where the buffalo graze in the late afternoon sun. We camouflaged ourselves with clumps of papyrus and got within 30 meters of them." He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth as if the memory were making him salivate. "We could hear the bull chuffing and snorting as he grazed." He mimicked the sound. "Bru, that old man will never forget that hunt. And neither will I." He paused for a moment, lost briefly in the memory. "Now they drive up and shoot the animal from the back of a truck," he said, his blue eyes suddenly fierce. "That's shooting, not hunting."

In 2005 Deon's brother Andre, who worked for a prominent safari operator named Gert Saaiman, asked if he was interested in taking down a rhino. Deon had never hunted rhinos before and began researching the animal. "To track them, you have to find their toilet," he says. Male white rhinos stamp around in their own manure to spread their scent and mark their territory, he explained. "It makes them easy to track."

Limiting the sound of the kills was crucial, so he experimented with compound bows and crossbows. Even a perfect shot to the lungs with weighted arrows wouldn't always bring down a rhino. So he built a silencer out of a metal pipe with washers soldered inside and fitted it on the barrel of a .30-06 rifle. "It makes the sound of an air gun—phooop," he says. "I've shot a male, and a female standing two meters away didn't flinch before I shot her too."

The brothers traveled the breadth of South Africa, taking rhinos from national parks and private reserves. Due to successful breeding programs, rhinos were plentiful, and security was lax or easy to evade. After a kill, they would pass the horns to others to sell. "But I only made small money," he says, noting that he, Andre, and a couple others would split about $11,000 for a pair of horns weighing 13 pounds. In the end Deon's discontent with his cut led to his arrest. He killed a rhino on his own and was caught selling it.

Now Deon is the one being hunted. Police have pressured him to testify against Saaiman and others. He is clearly fearful of the prospect. Just a few days after Deon's arrest, Saaiman's wife was shot in the throat in her driveway and died in front of her children. Six months ago, Deon's ex-wife was raped in their home. She and their four children have since gone into witness protection. Not long after, men claiming to be private investigators visited Deon in prison and offered him a new truck, $100,000, and a job as a PH not to testify.

He hasn't decided if he will cooperate with police when he is released in four months. "They can find me even if they go to jail," Deon says of his accomplices. "And I am sure they will kill me."

Visiting time ends, and a guard calls to him when he lingers, "Rhino, it's time." He looks at me and grins. " My nickname in here is 'Rhino.' "

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