Published: March 2012
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

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.' "

NO MATTER HOW GREAT a tracker Deon van Deventer may be, he could never find a wild rhino in Vietnam. Javan rhinos once proliferated in the Vietnamese forests and floodplains, but in 2010 poachers killed the nation's last wild rhino.

Yet Vietnam has no shortage of rhino horn. The illegal horn trade once revolved around markets in China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Yemen, but now it centers on Vietnam, with more than a ton of horn likely to have entered the country last year alone. In South Africa several Vietnamese nationals, including diplomats, have been implicated in plots to smuggle horns out of the country.

Not all rhino horns enter Vietnam illegally. South African law, which complies with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), allows a rhino's horns to be exported as trophies. In 2003 a Vietnamese hunter flew to South Africa and killed a rhino on a legal safari. Soon after, dozens of Asian hunters arrived, each paying $50,000 or more for a hunt through a certified safari outfit. Many of these hunters are believed to work for syndicates. Back in Vietnam, an average pair of horns, weighing 13 pounds, could be cut into pieces and sold on the black market, yielding a profit that could easily top $200,000 after costs.

The triggers for this gold rush are difficult to pinpoint. Rumors about famous users, rising black market prices, and dwindling numbers of Asian rhinos are all feeding the mania. But behind the hype is a renewed interest in the horn's alleged healing power. For at least 2,000 years, Asian medicine has prescribed rhino horn—ground into powder—to reduce fever and treat a range of maladies. The handful of studies conducted over the past 30 years on its fever reducing properties have proven inconclusive, yet the 2006 edition of a Vietnamese traditional pharmacopoeia devotes two pages to rhino horn.

The newest and most sensational claim is that it cures cancer. Oncologists say that no research has been published on the horn's efficacy as a cancer treatment. But even if rhino horn possesses dubious medicinal properties, that doesn't mean it has no effect on people who take it, says Mary Hardy, medical director of Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology and a traditional medicine expert. "Belief in a treatment, especially one that is wildly expensive and hard to get, can have a powerful effect on how a patient feels," she says.

To gain insights into the popularity of rhino horn in Vietnam, I traveled the country with a woman I will call Ms. Thien. A mammogram had revealed a spot on her right breast; a sonogram showed a worrisome shadow on an ovary. The attractive and irrepressible 52-year-old planned to seek modern treatment but also wanted to consult traditional doctors. I asked her if she believed rhino horn might help cure her. "I don't know," she said. "But when you think you might die, it can't hurt to try it."

Our travels took us from cancer hospitals and traditional clinics in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to herbal shops, boutiques selling exotic animal skins, and private homes in small towns. We found rhino horn every place we looked.

Most of the users we met belonged to Vietnam's fast-growing middle class and included Western-trained doctors, a bank executive, a mathematician, a real estate salesman, an engineer, and a high school teacher, among others. Often families would pool money to buy a piece of horn and share it. Some donated it to gravely ill friends who couldn't afford it. Mothers gave it to children with measles. Old people swore it cured poor circulation and prevented strokes. Many considered it a sort of super-vitamin.

Although a number of Vietnamese doctors I spoke with said rhino horn was not an effective cure for anything, let alone cancer, several other respected physicians claimed rhino horn could be part of an effective cancer treatment. Some said they prescribed it in pill form as a palliative for patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Others, including Tran Quoc Binh, director of the National Hospital of Traditional Medicine, which is part of Vietnam's Ministry of Health, believe that rhino horn can retard the growth of certain kinds of tumors. "First we start with modern medicine: chemotherapy, radiation, surgery," Tran said. "But after that, maybe some cancer cells still exist. So then we use traditional medicine to fight these cells." He said that a mixture of rhino horn, ginseng, and other herbs could actually block the growth of cancer cells, but he could not produce any peer-reviewed studies to support his claims.

One evening in Hanoi, Ms. Thien and I visited a busy lakeside café recommended to her by a friend who knew of her health concerns. She explained her situation to the owner, and he produced a chunk of amber-colored horn about the size of a bar of soap and a ceramic dish with a drawing of a rhino on the side. The dish's bottom was rough, like fine-grit sandpaper. He poured several ounces of water into the dish and began to rub the horn in a circular motion on the bottom. After a few minutes, the horn gave off an acrid odor, and the water turned a milky white. The other patrons paid no notice. As he rubbed, the café owner explained that he and a friend had bought the horn as a health supplement and hangover preventive, paying $18,000 for about 180 grams. Their interest had been prompted in part by one of Ho Chi Minh's former secretaries, a regular at the café, who told them that Ho, a firm believer in traditional medicine, had taken rhino horn every day.

After 20 minutes of rubbing, the man poured the liquid into two shot glasses and handed one to Ms. Thien and the other to me. It had a faintly gritty texture but otherwise was tasteless. Ms. Thien drained her glass and set it on the table. "I hope it works," she said.

JOHN HUME BELIEVES no rhinos need to die to supply all the rhino horn the Vietnamese desire. The 69-year-old entrepreneur, who made a fortune in hotels and taxis before turning to game farming, has amassed one of the largest privately owned rhino herds in the world. Currently he has more than 700 white and black rhinos on two farms in South Africa and wants more.

"We take wool from sheep, why not horn from rhinos?" he asks one afternoon, sitting in the office of one of his farms as an albino parrot named Sebastian nuzzles his ear. "If you cut the horn about three inches above its base, it will grow back in two years. That means there is a never ending supply of rhino horn if we're smart enough to keep the bloody animals alive."

Nearly once a week Hume's game manager and a veterinarian, observed by a wildlife official, anesthetize one of his rhinos and remove its two horns with a power saw. Twenty minutes later the animal is back grazing, and the horns, implanted with microchips, are on their way to a bank safe. Hume refuses to say how much horn he has accumulated since he began harvesting in 2002, but a conservative estimate would put its value at tens of millions of dollars.

Hume's idea to farm rhino horn on a large scale would appear to be another in a string of innovative wildlife management practices to come from South Africa. In 1961 officials in Natal Province pioneered the transfer of wild rhinos to private land to increase breeding and genetic diversity. In 1986 the Natal Parks Board allowed excess rhinos from the province's reserves to be auctioned off at fair market value, which brought millions of dollars to local conservation efforts and raised the animals' value among game farmers and hunters. Hume suggests harvesting rhino horn is the next sensible step in preserving and valuing the animals.

As our conversation continues, Hume becomes increasingly agitated. A Vietnamese hunter would happily dart the animal, take the horns, and let it live, he thunders. "But South African law requires the hunter to kill the rhino to export the horn as a trophy." He shakes his head at the illogic.

Among the misconceptions, Hume says, is that ivory and horn are the same. Ivory is an elephant's tooth, while rhino horn is keratin, similar to a horse's hoof. When an elephant's tusk is severed, the nerve inside can become infected, killing the animal. Also, darting an elephant is much more dangerous than darting a rhino, because of its greater size and the protectiveness of its herd.

Conservationists argue that legalizing rhino horn won't change the essential economics of poaching: Poached horn is always going to be cheaper than farmed horn. Hume disagrees: As buyers become confident in the availability of legal horn, prices will fall, which will prompt crime syndicates to leave the business. "The fundamental difference is that poachers go after rhino horn for easy short-term profit. Farmers are in it for years of steady returns."

Some of the resistance, he fears, is a cultural disconnect. "We basically are telling the Vietnamese that it is fine to kill an animal because our tradition of cutting a rhino's head off and putting it on a wall as a decoration is acceptable, but your tradition of cutting off its horn to use for medicine is abominable."

AFTER PATROLLING ALL NIGHT with no sign of the poachers, Damien organized a search for the rhinos. A cold rain fell, and mist filled the forests and valleys as the rangers walked in lines looking for blood or a carcass in the undergrowth. As of midday, Basta and her calf were still missing.

As Damien drove to check the rhinos' preferred feeding areas, he described how his days in Iraq protecting UN convoys gave him special insight into what animals face from poachers. "We got hit by IEDs a few times, and I lost some mates," he said quietly. "I know what it's like to be hunted by humans."

Once he left the military, he was looking for a new life and realized his experience training Iraqi police recruits to take control of their chaotic country matched perfectly with Zimbabwe's chaotic wilderness areas, where game rangers are often ill equipped, poorly paid, and bribed by poachers. He used money saved from his tours in Iraq to found the International Anti Poaching Foundation, which trains, equips, and places game rangers in public and private reserves in Zimbabwe for free. He recruits candidates from the poorest communities because that is where many poachers are from—and where the idea that wildlife is more valuable alive than dead needs to take root. Won't such ideals pale against the allure of big money from poaching? "People said Iraq would never get better, and that's happening," he said. "I am taking the long view here too."

FOUR MONTHS after I interviewed Deon, he was released from prison. He told police he wouldn't testify against his accomplices. Charges were later dropped against Gert Saaiman. Meanwhile, poachers have killed four white rhinos at John Hume's farms. Ms. Thien's doctors determined the spots on her breast and ovary are cysts. She is treating them with a mix of Western and Asian medicine, including rhino horn.

Before I left Zimbabwe, I went back to see Damien. He and Benzene led me to a spot deep in the bush where Basta quietly nibbled leaves from a mopani tree. She stood over her new calf, its wrinkly skin bunched around its neck and knees, resembling oversize gray pajamas. It had a slight bump where a first horn would eventually emerge, just as it had on the snouts of its ancestors for 40 million years. Listening to songbirds trilling in the afternoon sun, we marveled at the little rhino's wobbly attempts to follow its lumbering mother in the high yellow grass.

Damien shook his head. "It's amazing to see that little guy and think someone wants to kill him for that tiny nub, no matter how much magic it supposedly contains." I told him that if his new life's work was to protect rhinos, his "Seek & Destroy" tattoo should read, "Seek & Save." He laughed. "Yeah, mate, I might have to get that changed."