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