It was during a warm dawn last week in South Africa’s Karongwe Private Game Reserve that I finally grasped the extent of rhino poaching in Africa. Around the morning campfire in the lowveld beneath the northern Drakensberg, I asked a ranger to provide me with animal population numbers on the 9500-hectare reserve.
Elephant, cheetah, leopard, zebra? I asked, and she reeled off numbers. Rhino?
“I know the numbers, but we don’t tell anyone how many rhinos are here,'” she replied. To give out rhino numbers, it seems, is to invite in poachers.
Yesterday was World Rhino Day, which was marked by the release of figures showing that 688 rhinos – around one in every 40 of Africa’s rhinos – have been killed by poachers in South Africa in 2013. It’s a record number – last year, 668 rhinos were poached; in 2007, 13 rhinos were killed – and it’s only September.
Mum and bub, iSimangaliso Wetland Park
In battling poachers, authorities are no longer fighting men with pop guns; they’re fighting an industry. The contemporary poacher is using the likes of helicopters and night-vision scopes to find rhinos. Scrambling to catch up, authorities this year launched drones to track suspected poachers. Horns have been removed from some rhinos to deter killings, and a farmer has proposed injecting cyanide into horns to make them poisonous to eat.
In my time in South Africa over the last couple of weeks, I was privileged to experience some fantastic wildlife encounters. I stood metres from a cheetah as it lay guarding its fresh kill. I idled in a small boat beside a pod of yawning, bellowing hippos. I made the mistake of yielding to cabin fever one night and taking a walk through darkness… only to discover that a leopard had broken through the electric fences into camp.
Cheetah and an ex-waterbuck
But even before I’d been alerted to the fragility of the rhino’s future, these armour-plated animals had become my critter of choice, my personal African totem. In Karongwe, a mother and baby thundered across the road ahead of our vehicle, stopping a short distance away, the mother swinging her head from side to side in warning against any approach we might dare to make.
Another evening, as we drove through a typically blood-red sunset in iSimangaliso, five white rhinos, including a month-old calf, grazed in a clearing among zebras and blue wildebeest. As we parked at the road edge, the mother and calf wandered clear of the other animals, stepping in and out of the long shadows cast by the surrounding scrub. The calf took brave steps away from its mother, then hurried back to maternal safety. Finally it flopped onto the grass, its stubby legs tucked under its body, entirely at peace. But did it have a future beyond the price of its horn?
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