“It was a mother and calf, both shot in the head,” says Lawrence Munro, a ranger with the regional wildlife agency in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. There were two dead rhinos at the crime scene.
“They shot the mother first. She wasn’t dead, so they hacked her spine with an axe to immobilize her,” he says with the bluntness of an NCIS agent.
The rhino war isn’t about rhino — it’s about people … human life is being lost. People are dying.
— Lawrence Munro
Last year more than 1,000 rhinos were killed in South Africa — more than 600 in the famed Kruger Park, a popular tourist site, alone — according to government statistics. Through May 14 of this year, 376 were poached. Those are huge numbers, considering there are only about 20,000 white rhinos and about 5,000 black rhinos in Africa, and Asian species are faring even worse, according to conservation groups. If the killing continues at its current rate, rhinos could be extinct in the wild by 2026, says Katherine Ellis, communications manager at Save the Rhino International in London.
But Munro, for his part, is pushing to shift the focus on poaching away from the animals.
“The rhino war isn’t about rhino — it’s about people,” he says, in a much less clinical tone. “The scariest thing here is that human life is being lost. People are dying. We shot and killed a poacher last week. He died next to me … We carried him out on a stretcher. He was stiff.”
Rangers have also died, and will continue to, in fire fights with poachers who are often armed with automatic weapons and looking for big money from rhino horn. Munro, 38, originally wanted to be a professional soldier, but decided to study conservation at his father’s urging. Today, he’s aware that his death could look a lot like a soldier’s.
“I’ve already told my friends that, if I get shot, they’re the guys that must identify the body, not my family,” says Munro. “Don’t let my family anywhere near.”
To hear him speak about it, the rhino war — and that is how he refers to it, as a war — is a struggle for people’s connection to the wilderness. Rhinos, because of their massive size and almost-prehistoric appearance, are symbolic. If they can’t be kept safe, Munro worries there is little hope of preserving smaller creatures and the “wild areas” of Africa where they live.
Munro is white and grew up in northern KwaZulu-Natal after his family emigrated from Zimbabwe. Living on the edge of town, his parents allowed him to head out into the wild by himself each weekend to hike, camp and pretend he was protecting the bush like one of the soldiers or game rangers he read about. As a teenager he learned to speak Zulu while volunteering with the provincial wildlife agency, known as Ezemvelo, which operates game reserves like Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Now, the park is part of his area of responsibility as rhino operations unit manager for Ezemvelo.
The former hunting ground of Zulu kings such as Shaka, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi covers about 96,000 hectares in the northeast of the country, close to the Indian Ocean and Swaziland. Hluhluwe and iMfolozi were established as game reserves in 1895. When white rhino were hunted to near extinction at the turn of the 20th century, with only about 20 remaining, the park was their haven, where they bred themselves back from the brink. By the 1960s, the population rebounded enough for animals to be moved to restock other areas, gaining the park a reputation as the home of rhino conservation.
That history puts a lot of pressure on Munro and other rangers patrolling this remote land — covered in thorny acacias and trees toppled by elephants, crisscrossed by game trails dotted with dung from water buffalo, kudu and warthog —to keep its rhinos safe.
“There’s a massive burden of pressure,” he says. “We’re reminded of that all the time.”
That stress is on top of concerns about poachers and encounters with the very wildlife they’re trying to protect. Some rangers are gored by rhinos, others attacked by lions. There was a pride of lions just 50 meters away when rangers were investigating the crime scene where the rhinos were killed, Munro says. A few years ago, while sitting by a river with his feet in the water, a crocodile bit his legs and began to drag him under. His pregnant wife came to his rescue, and after a lot of pulling, screaming and kicking the animal let go.
A man clearly most comfortable in the bush, Munro says South Africans must realize what it will mean for their country economically and reputationally if its most recognizable animals aren’t kept safe. But rangers are dealing with the poachers — mostly from South Africa and Mozambique — who are at the lowest level of massive criminal syndicates selling rhino horn on the black market for as much as $65,000 per kilo. When rhino horn from Zululand is recovered in Singapore it’s clear the problem extends far beyond Munro and his daily treks and flights through the parks.
Save the Rhino is working on cutting the demand in Vietnam, which has been identified as the main market for rhino horn, by helping fund the work of a local organization called Education for Nature Vietnam. This includes policy work, funding of a wildlife crime unit and also awareness campaigns, some targeted at wealthy urban men over 40 who have been identified as the major consumers of rhino horn. While cutting demand is a focus, Ellis says, “The rangers on the ground are the most important component to rhino protection. Without a well-equipped, motivated group of rangers, rhinos don’t stand a chance.”
Why you should care
Because the rhino war isn’t just about protecting the animals.