The poached black rhino in HORN (Part 2)
Leaving the exhausted duiker behind
Leaving the exhausted duiker behind I turned my attention to the country on the opposite side of the fence. In the front of the vehicle, the officials had resumed their conversation where it left off before our brief break at the border post. They were talking about an operation that was planned for later that day. My interest was caught momentarily because I realised that the operation they were talking about had something to do with a high stakes poacher interception on the opposite side of the park. However, I decided to push their conversation to the background in order to pay attention to the situation I was in at that moment. It seemed important to me personally and I was determined to take everything in. The road snaked up and down in massive slithering waves along the borderline until it disappeared into the heat waves on the horizon. Judging distance in this terrain seemed futile to me. Mile upon mile stretched out in front of us. It must be exhausting for the rangers to walk here, I thought. The ground was covered in a deep and loose layer of thick sand. In combination with the heat, walking through this terrain surely calls for the most physically capable of individuals on both sides. For ranger and poacher that environment is treacherous – not to mention the threat of being attacked by wild animals as well as a human armed with an AK-47.
A stone’s throw away to the right was Mozambique. This fact still didn’t completely compute in my mind. In Europe, where I have lived for the last decade or so, borders seem more fluid given the nature of the European Union. The borders between African countries however always seemed so much more complicated to me. I associate African borders with complex histories, oppression, colonial rule and tragic personal stories. Historically this is of course also true for Europe, while today its border crossings are quickly becoming symbols of similar things. My gaze stayed focused on the land beyond the fence. There seemed to be no difference between my own country and the one I was looking at. Yet, two flimsy fences told me that that piece of land – the one that appeared exactly like my own – was to be looked at with suspicion.
The last time I was so close to the border was when I was still in kindergarten. I cannot remember it clearly, but the impressions I still carry with me are more intimidating than what I saw before me as we drove along the fence. Back in the 1980s, we were on our way home from the Kruger National Park, when my father surprised us with an unexpected detour. ‘I want to show you something you’ve never seen before,’ my father told my brother and me. Naturally, we had no idea that we were anywhere near Mozambique. We were far too young. I was about five years old, while my bigger brother, my ‘boeta’ (as I used to call him), was only eight. Without giving anything away, my father drove us all the way to the Lebombo border crossing – the world’s end to our young minds. Theoretically, it was the same border as the one we were on now, only 600km or so further north. I recall seeing several uniformed men on both sides of the border, armed to the teeth as they towered above me. My father asked them if they would allow my brother and me to put our feet over the border so that we could be in two countries at the same time. Remarkably, they allowed it and soon I found myself quite literally straddling two worlds – one I regarded as safe and the other I only knew to be dangerous. It was bizarre, because although it shouldn’t make a difference, I remember that one side of my body felt safer than the other. I felt intimidated by the weapons around me and a little scared that something would happen to the part of me that wasn’t in South Africa anymore. When we were back in our car on our way home to Pretoria, I felt exhilarated – as if I had flirted with danger and had laughed in its face. Silly, I know, but at that age it was one of the most exciting things I’d ever done. From that moment on, I would proudly tell people I’d already visited two countries in my young life – South Africa and Mozambique.
Looking at the border as a grownup, though, made me feel uncomfortable for a different reason. What type of world do we live in where a couple of metres this way or that way could completely change the fate of a person’s life? People living in Mozambique beyond the fences undoubtedly had a much harder life than we on this side. As a child of five bravely flirting with danger, I was already aware of how often people would venture into the Kruger National Park from Mozambique in search of a better life. Maybe it was exactly that slight awareness of the conditions in our neighbouring country that made me feel so nervous when I was a young child. All I heard back then was how dangerous Mozambique was and how illegal immigration threatened our way of life. Not much has changed since then and xenophobia is still rampant. People still talk of Mozambique as the cause of all our problems – the poaching crisis rhetoric being no different. I remember seeing a report on the long running television programme called 50/50 soon after my first visit to the border. It shocked me to the core as they showed viewers the slightly blurred-out image of a Mozambican man halfway devoured – presumably by a lion. The reporter informed us that this often happened to entire families with babies (and little tots like me) in their attempt to enter South Africa. Those images paired with my impressions of the border left a deep imprint on my young mind. And in many ways, it has shaped the way I regard the issue of illegal immigrants more generally. With the current refugee crisis in Europe, I think about those early experiences regularly. Not unlike the Syrians of today, Mozambicans from back then would venture into an unknown country, predators could attack them at any moment, and still they chose to jump the fence into South Africa. Their lives in Mozambique must have been so terrible that they would rather cross the border with baby on back in the dead of night not able to see what awaits them in the bush. Sometimes lions would kill them and sometimes they would make it all the way to the mines in Johannesburg. In those days, the fence between the two countries was electrified with a lethal level of voltage. So, often people were already electrocuted trying to get through. But now, after the demise of Apartheid, none of the fences have any current running through them , which makes the policing of the border even more complicated.
With this in mind, I shifted my gaze to the left side of the road, the South African side – the safe side. What met me there was a wall of dense shrubbery that no eye could penetrate. At that point, our convoy come to a halt. ‘We’re here,’ the park manager informed us. I looked around, but could see nothing. ‘The carcass is in the bush, we have to walk from here,’ the manager read my mind. ‘But first, I want to show you where they came in.’ David and I got out and followed the manager to the fence.
'They came in over there.'
‘They came in over there. As you can see, they dug their way underneath the fence.’ He pointed to a section in the fence a few metres away from us. And there clear as daylight, I saw where they had dug away the sand, leaving a hole for a body to crawl through. One, two … three sets of prints, an investigator counted. That made sense. Usually, there were at least three men involved: the shooter, the hacker and one keeping a lookout. ‘Did they come in and out at the same point?’ I asked.
‘Yes, we presume so. The rhino is not far from here, so it would make sense for them to return to the spot they knew was safe. And judging by the number of tracks, they must have come in and out’. Due to the volume of sand, it was impossible to see the direction of their strides. ‘You know,’ the manager said softly, ‘the frustrating thing is that the poachers are probably looking at us right now.’ Surprised by his statement, I followed the manager’s contemplative expression into Mozambique. ‘Right now?’ I stunned.
‘Ja, they often hide away over there looking at us, knowing we can’t do anything.’
‘Why?’ I asked incredulously, ‘Why on earth would criminals come back to the crime scene?’
‘It’s not as crazy as it sounds. We can’t go into Mozambique and they can learn from how we investigate by observing us. They look at what we do, what we look at. They can probably also hear what we are saying. Truth be told, it’s the perfect way to learn how not to get caught.’
The manager left us for a moment as we started filming. Ten minutes or so later he returned to tell us they are ready to move into the bush. It is about a 5-minute walk. As we set off, I was struck once more by how difficult the sand makes it. With every step I took, the ground gave way beneath me, forcing me to realign my bodyweight. As soon as we entered the bush, however, I marvelled just how dense the terrain actually is. I could see nothing but trees, bushes and thorns. In fact, the bush was so dense that I couldn’t see anything other than the vegetation. The perfect habitat for a black rhino! How the poachers ever found anything in such an environment was beyond me.
Suddenly, a horrible stench hit my nostrils. I flinched awkwardly. The involuntary reactions and sounds of disgust increased as others also started smelling it. I had smelt something similar a few weeks ago at another poaching – though this was infinitely more potent. There truly isn’t anything that comes close to the sickening smell of rotting flesh. The rhino was killed two days earlier. So given the timeframe as well as scorching heat, I wasn’t all that surprised that it smelt so bad already. It turned out that we were practically on top of the rhino, yet I still couldn’t see it. We were asked to wait for the forensics team to make an initial sweep of the scene. We would only be allowed closer when they were sure we wouldn’t destroy crucial evidence. So, we waited patiently in a small clearing as the team disappeared into the bush only a few metres away. Ever so often I would catch a whiff of the rhino. I realised that I was starting to feel a bit queasy, so I turned around to block out the smell. ‘Don’t be sick! Don’t be sick! Don’t be sick’ I chanted silently. I closed my eyes momentarily in the attempt to steady my stomach. When I opened them again, I was looking straight up at a red and white tag tied to a twig by the rangers who had found the rhino initially. They mark the spot in this way because of the terrain. Otherwise one may never find the corpse again. I signalled to David to film it.
The first thing I saw of the black rhino.
‘Right,’ a voice cut through the shrubbery. ‘All clear! Send them in!’ We silently moved in. The first thing I saw of the black rhino was the side of its body. Paradoxically, its massive frame was almost invisible behind a small tree. I didn’t have a clear view, so I decided to move round the tree and immediately squinted as another wave of rotten air hit me head on. This time, it was so intense that it knocked the wind right out of me. It was literally as if I was punched in the gut by nothing more than an odour. My eyes started watering. Automatically, I wiped my eyes dry and tried to focus again. With some shock, I realised I had moved over to the rhino’s front and I was staring at its mutilated face. Was it the smell or the sight that made my eyes water? I am still not sure. Dave and I positioned ourselves next to its head as the team carried on with their search for the bullet. I glanced over at David who was clearly also struggling with the rhino’s odour. Though ever the professional, he just got on with the job, dutifully capturing everything on camera. I did the same on my side.
Sometimes poachers only remove the horn, but more often than not, they cut all the way into the nasal cavity in order to get as much horn as possible. This causes tremendous and mostly irreparable damage to the rhino. I could clearly see the carnage the poachers left behind from my vantage point. It was a terribly sad sight. I started studying the wound, ignoring the stench that protruded from it. My investigation began at the rhino’s eyes. Closed in death, the cow seemed peaceful though I knew she must have endured great suffering. Her long lashes made her seem very feminine and one might mistake the animal for sleeping were it not for the drop of blood that clung to one of her long lashes. I shifted my gaze to her mouth. I do that every time I see a rhino – to check if it is a white or a black rhino. And there it was, clear as day. The characteristic hooked lips of the black rhino. However, instead of a light grey, I was met with blood stained lips that stuck to her like lipstick. How often have I dreamt of identifying a black rhino by looking at its lips? But I have never dreamt of it in this way! As I expected the evening before when talking to my father on the phone, I felt deeply saddened by the fact that my second black rhino was a poached one. From there, I travelled up to the wound halving the rhino’s face. She was cut clean all the way to the bone. At one point however, the instrument the poacher used must have got caught in the bone, as a small shard of the rhino’s nasal cavity protruded out towards me. Flies were everywhere. It didn’t bleed anymore, but a pond of blood replaced the area where air should be.
‘Take care, Reina. You’re covered in ticks’, the manager broke my trance. ‘Make sure one doesn’t bite you. You could get ill.’ I looked down at my legs and, sure enough, at least thirty ticks where clinging to my trousers already. As soon as a rhino dies and the blood circulation stops, I was told, ticks immediately let go of their host. I glanced at the rest of the rhino. It was littered with ticks. So was the ground we were standing on.
The night the rhino died.
Later that evening, when we got back to our motel, I was still picking off ticks from myself as I tried to wash off the smell of death in the shower. As the water cleansed off the day’s experience, I recalled what the forensic investigators reconstructed of the night the rhino died. It played out like a film in my mind’s eye: The night is bright. Not a cloud in the sky, while the moon is full and high – a poacher’s moon as it is called. Both mother and calf are already sleeping in their usual spot. The thick shrubbery makes an ideal bed for both as their large bodies press down on the ground. Suddenly, the calf lifts its head as it hears something. A twig breaking. It looks around, but sees and smells nothing. As it turns its head towards its mother, a figure emerges from the darkness. Within seconds the shadow presses a gun to its mother’s head and pulls the trigger. A single crack is heard that sends the bullet directly through the cow’s scull. From there it misses the spine while cutting through more flesh and bone. It exits her body on the opposite side only to re-enter her front left leg. Remarkably, this doesn’t kill her. The shock however immediately jerks her to her feet. Following its mother’s example, the calf jumps up as well, but does not run. Instead, it is waiting for its mother’s lead. It is only when the cow staggers sideways that the calf realises something is wrong and uncharacteristically leaves its mother behind, dashing off into the night, never to be found again. The cow manages to move about five metres away from where she was shot before her legs give way. She crashes down, breaking branches beneath her as she falls. Still she does not die, though death is clearly near. She is immobilised by a series of twitches. Then, slowly yet certainly her body relaxes and her head drops down beside a small tree. As the three shadows draw closer, her eyes close a final time.
Another tick stuck to the cubit of my arm! It should be removed quickly. In doing so, I thought I caught another whiff of rotting flesh. I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it or if I should scrub some more. From that moment on however, every time I see the footage we took that day, the ghostly odour of death would fill my nostrils in remembrance of the rhino’s fate.