by Doug Stewart
Information Access Company
March 1, 2001
In South Africa these hefty, unpredictable and inquisitive beasts
are flourishing and have become very big business.
The black rhinoceros standing at the edge of the clearing locks
eyes with me and stares malevolently. Or it seems to--rhinos have
poor eyesight. And they always look irritated, if not downright
angry. "He's not in a good mood," David Bradfield whispers
to me as we sit in an open Land Rover 50 yards away, watching the
rotund young bull as he stamps his feet and exhales loudly through
his nostrils. In the driver's seat, Riaan Pretorius starts up the
engine, just in case. Bradfield and Pretorius work at the Lapalala
Wilderness, a spectacular private wildlife reserve in South Africa
with nearly one-eighth the land area of Rhode Island. Lapalala has
dozens of wild rhinos, and the rangers know them all. This is Mapateng,
an ornery 2-year-old who already weighs close to a ton. With an
explosive snort, he bolts a few yards toward us in a mock charge,
then turns and swaggers back to his ponderous two-ton mother, Punyane,
who continues to browse.
Black rhinos are unpredictable beasts. When they charge, they often
keep coming--and they're capable of covering 45 feet in one second.
"I was watching a group of rhinos a few weeks ago," Pretorius
says quietly as we study the animals, "when the wind changed."
A large male put his head down and came straight for him. Pretorius
quickly climbed the nearest tree. "I stayed up there and had
a smoke," he says. (Treed humans can't always relax. A black
rhino at the Hluhluwe reserve in KwaZulu-Natal Province used to
reach into a tree's branches and try to hook people out with her
front horn. The rangers there called her Poking Polly.)
People and rhinoceroses prefer similar habitat but don't mix very
well, which is one reason rhinos have almost vanished from the earth.
Outside Africa, rhinos have long had a potent, even mythical, reputation
thanks to their imposing bulk and almost prehistoric appearance.
A rhinoceros was paraded through Rome in 29 b.c. to celebrate Augustus'
victory over Cleopatra's Egypt. Marco Polo thought they were unicorns.
But newcomers moving into rhino country were often less admiring.
Observing a large bull shot by his expedition in South Africa's
Cape in 1801, William Somerville deemed it "beyond comparison
the most awkward and ugly of quadrupeds." Since the 19th century,
people have shot them for protection, for sport, for their horns--used
in Asia for folk remedies and in Yemen for dagger handles. Before
the close of the 20th century, the death toll was staggering.
Like the giant panda, the rhinoceros is now a worldwide symbol
of endangered megafauna. Asia's three species of rhino--the Javan,
Sumatran and Indian--cling to survival in a few protected refuges.
Africa's two species--the black, or hook-lipped, rhinoceros (Diceros
bicornis) and the white, or square-lipped, rhino (Ceratotherium
simum)--have been killed off in one impoverished, land-hungry country
after another. But here the story has a twist. In South Africa,
rhinoceroses are flourishing. The country has two of the three significant
populations of endangered black rhinos left in Africa and close
to 90 percent of all the southern white rhinos remaining on the
continent. The numbers of both are climbing year by year.
A key reason is game privatization. South Africans now buy, sell,
breed and ship wild animals--white rhinos especially--as if they
were racehorses or Pomeranians. Rural landowners are selling off
their cattle, bringing in expensive game, and charging admission.
The country's thousands of private reserves now account for three
times as much conservation land as its expansive national parks.
Some conservationists in the West tut-tut about the seeming crassness
of it all, but South Africans just point to their game counts.
"In 1962 we had one breeding population of white rhinos in
the whole of South Africa," says George Hughes, head of the
KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service (KZN-NCS), whose breeding
stock has fueled the white rhinos' comeback. "Today we have
well over 250 breeding populations." Many of those, he says,
are in private hands.
The Lapalala Wilderness, occupying a huge swath of rugged bush
veld in South Africa's remote Northern Province, is one of the most
significant private sanctuaries for rhinos in the world. Dozens
of white and black rhinos roam the enormous refuge, along with giraffes,
zebra, hippos, Cape buffalo and antelope. The preserve was created
in 1981 by a South African writer, Clive Walker, as a nonprofit
tourism and education center with backing from a Cape Town businessman,
Dale Parker. Walker is delighted so many private landowners have
followed his lead.
"Everyone seems to be buying rhinos," he tells me as
we huddle around a fire on a chilly night at one of Lapalala's rustic
bush camps. "There are more than 10,000 white rhinos in private
and government hands in this country now." The post-apartheid
government has slashed its nature-conservation budget so it can
pay for long-overlooked social needs. Yet to the surprise of pessimists,
the number of rhinos in the country is growing, not diminishing--"in
spite of the fact that it's now permissible to hunt white rhinos
here." Walker, a still-dashing 64-year-old who's bagged a lion
or two in his day, estimates that 45 to 50 white rhinos, typically
older bulls, are shot by trophy hunters each year (none at Lapalala).
Black rhinos remain off-limits. "Private enterprise now looks
at the game industry as something worthwhile to get into,"
he says. "People are willing to pay more than $ 30,000 apiece
for white rhinos. They are mostly buying them not for hunting but
to breed them and sell the offspring at a profit, and for tourism.
It's amazing how this has developed."
Early the next morning, I tag along on a foot patrol with Bradfield
and Pretorius. Ahead of us on a high grassy plateau studded with
flat-topped acacias and velvet bush willows, game trackers Andries
Mokwena and Martiens Mpaga are following a set of fresh white rhino
tracks. The white rhino is reputed to be less dangerous than the
smaller black rhino, but only relatively. In the distance, herds
of blue wildebeests and impalas graze. A lone kudu bull with gorgeously
striped flanks and curlicuing horns watches us before bounding into
the trees. As we hike, all I can make out of the rhino's trail are
the impressive, still-warm dung piles that punctuate it.
Then, almost casually, without a word, Mokwena and Mpaga crouch
down in the tall grass. A short distance upwind, four white rhinos--a
bull, a cow, and her calves--are placidly munching grass in a clearing.
These are the largest land mammals on earth, aside from elephants
and hippos, but their low-hanging bellies and scrawny tails remind
me at first of a much smaller pachyderm, the pig. "That's Poacher,"
Bradfield whispers, pointing to the largest of the four. "He's
one of our older bulls." With his blimplike girth and lethal-looking
front horn, Poacher is an impressive specimen. On the black market,
that horn alone could fetch $ 10,000, though it's nothing more than
a tight bundle of fibers, similar in composition to a fingernail.
(Claims for the rejuvenating powers of ground rhino horn are thus
about as valid as believing that chewing your nails will make you
"See his wide mouth?" Pretorius whispers to me. "That's
different from the black rhino's. And the heads of these animals
are much bigger." Both white and black rhinos, he says, are
actually gray. White is probably a mistranslation of the Afrikaans
weit, or wide, to describe the white rhino's low-hanging mouth,
adapted for grazing. The black rhinos we saw earlier had smaller,
higher heads and prehensile upper lips, which reminded me of a rudimentary
elephant's trunk as they grabbed twigs and foliage rather than grass.
Now the foursome seem to get wind of us, literally. They stop grazing
and stare suspiciously in our direction, their ears swiveling like
radar dishes sweeping the horizon. A rhino's sense of smell, like
its hearing, is acute--its nasal passages occupy more space than
its brain does. With surprising agility for so hefty a beast, Poacher
begins to pivot in place, his massive head helping counterbalance
his hindquarters. As a full-grown rhino, he may lack natural predators,
but he's skittish all the same. Abruptly, the animals move off at
a trot. They somehow carry their bodies lightly as they move, their
tails held high.
I glimpse scars on Poacher's back--wounds from a poacher's spear
in Natal some years ago, says Bradfield. With better security in
the past decade, he says as we head back to the Land Rover, poaching
is not as dire a threat to South Africa's rhinos as it once was.
A more likely killer of rhinos here is probably other rhinos. "If
you have too many bulls, they're going to start killing each other,"
he says. A shy and serious-minded 29-year-old, Bradfield, like Pretorius,
wears shorts and hiking boots in even near-freezing weather. As
wildlife manager here, he has the responsibility of knowing where
all the rhinos are and, if necessary, interceding if there's trouble--calling
in a vet perhaps, or moving a troublemaker elsewhere. Doesn't a
good wildlife manager, I ask, let nature take its course? Isn't
Africa supposed to be wild?
"But is African wildlife natural?" Bradfield replies.
"It's not anymore. We've got fences all over Africa, especially
in South Africa." This very reserve, all 140 square miles of
it, is fenced. In effect, the rhinos and other big game are all
here by invitation. (Elephants, lions and spotted hyenas have not
been invited.) Even Kruger National Park, Bradfield points out,
a wildlife sanctuary the size of Israel, has an electrified fence
around its entire perimeter. "These are not natural systems,
so we have to control the animal populations inside them."
Indeed, game fences are ubiquitous in South Africa. Outside the
dusty hamlet of Vaalwater, I stop at the Nyathi Ranch, one of many
private game ranches in the region. The owner, a tough-talking Afrikaner
named Martin Nagel, is about to hold a game auction in a barn out
back. "Every year, game prices in South Africa break the previous
year's record," he says, as we go out to watch an oversize
tractor trailer unload a shipment of live giraffes, wildebeests
and waterbuck. "The prices keep climbing." From a catwalk
above two rows of roofed pens, I look down on an ark's worth of
African wildlife, from antelope to zebra. All of it is for sale,
from the nyala bulls with green ear tags and protective plastic
tubing on their horns, to the pairs of giraffes circling restlessly
in narrow pens like slow-moving two-bladed propellers. Nagel isn't
selling rhinos today, he says apologetically, but he will next year.
Outside the auction barn, I chat with a middle-aged couple, John
and Val Thorp, who own a 6,000-acre ranch nearby. (For rural white
landowners, that's fairly modest. For blacks, it's unimaginable.
Though apartheid has formally ended, most blacks still live on communally
owned tribal lands or in rented shacks in crowded black townships.)
The Thorps already own seven white rhinos. "We just got chased
by three of them yesterday, a mother, a father, and baby,"
Val tells me. "I shouldn't say 'chased.' They followed us,
like a dog would. They're very inquisitive."
Their neighbors Simon and Danielle Rood join us. "The warthog's
pregnant again," Danielle announces. "We've never seen
so many pigs," adds Simon.
"That's probably why the leopard's moved in," John says.
"That's the way it should be," says Simon, though the
old-time cattle ranchers don't yet agree, he adds. Leopards will
keep the warthogs and impalas in check without troubling the larger
game. These people may live in ranch houses, I realize, but suburbanites
they're not. The Thorps are planning to build a new house inside
their game fence so they can watch the rhinos from their picture
What with all the game fences that South Africans are erecting,
livestock trucks have replaced migration as the usual mode of long-distance
transport for wildlife. Catching and moving rhinos and other large,
dangerous animals has become a precise, fast-moving, almost military-style
operation involving lots of people and heavy equipment. On a cool
winter morning in Kruger National Park recently, with patches of
mist still blanketing the veld, I watch from the back of a crowded
white pickup as a white rhino staggers into a clearing. A few minutes
ago, veterinarian Douw Grobler, chief of Kruger's game-capture team,
leaned out of a jet helicopter and fired an immobilizing dart into
the bull's rump. The chopper now hovers just above the trees, herding
the woozy animal toward the road before it drops.
Kruger is home to between 3,000 and 4,000 white and perhaps 500
black rhinos. Surplus animals are regularly trucked to uncrowded
corners of the immense park or to other parks and private buyers.
The darted bull I'm watching is one of four due to be rounded up
this morning. Like a punch-drunk prizefighter, it's now swaying
on its feet, shuffling and snorting. People and trucks begin moving
in from all sides. With the bull still on its feet, Grobler, a gruff,
stoop-shouldered man with an obvious air of authority, strolls up,
retrieves his dart and pulls a large blindfold over its eyes. Then,
with both hands, Grobler shoves the dazed creature over onto its
big, rounded side.
The team goes to work--taking blood samples, setting ropes, readying
a crate. As a long line of rangers prepares to heave on a line tied
to the rhino's handy front horn, Grobler grabs a syringe with a
fast-acting antidote. Drugging a rhinoceros is a tricky business.
You want it groggy enough not to kill you, yet lively enough to
do its own walking; even 20 rangers couldn't lift a full-grown rhino.
Grobler jabs the bull behind the ear, and within a minute or two
it starts to come around, hissing and panting under its blindfold.
The boss of the rope-hauling chorus line calls out, "Right,
if the rope goes, it's everyone for himself! Pick your vehicle."
I edge toward the white pickup, but the ropes hold, and within 20
minutes the bull is packed inside the steel crate, the crate winched
onto a large flatbed truck, and the truck roaring down an asphalt
road to the park's rhino boma, or holding pens. In a month or two,
it will be snorting and wallowing behind someone else's game fence.
Amazingly, Kruger Park used to have no rhinos at all. In 1892,
in fact, white rhinos were presumed to have disappeared from the
planet altogether, victims not of poaching but of European hunters
and land clearing. A few years later, a pocket of survivors was
discovered in a valley between the Black and White Umfolozi rivers.
The thousands of white rhinos in Africa today, including every one
of Kruger's, trace their lineage to that remnant population. (Black
rhinos, by contrast, were abundant into the 1960s. Then rampant
poaching nearly exterminated them. From 100,000 in 1960, their numbers
in Africa plummeted to barely 2,500 by 1992. Today, though still
vulnerable, black rhinos have rebounded somewhat to just under 3,000.)
The wild patch of riverine bush veld where the white rhinos had
hidden in the 1890s is today part of the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park
game reserves, now teeming with rhinos and other big game. The KwaZulu-Natal
Nature Conservation Service (nee Natal Parks Board) has been selling
the excess to the highest bidder since 1988. The annual KwaZulu-Natal
Game Auction is the Kentucky Derby of wildlife sales, attracting
high rollers and setting game-price records.
The day before the auction, prospective bidders window-shop the
zoolike rhino bomas on a hilltop at Umfolozi. In the wooden-pole
pens are more than 40 rhinos, white and black; hoof stock is cloistered
at a separate locale. The rhinos here may be captive, but they're
certainly not tame. The first black rhino I approach is exuding
bad intentions. He immediately makes a mock charge, then backs up
and charges me again. Not satisfied with that, he trots off into
the main enclosure in back, spins in place, then hurtles straight
at me from 30 feet, skidding to a stop with a loud burst of spray
from both quivering nostrils, his horn jutting between the boma
poles. This animal obviously wants not only to break out of this
joint but to puncture me and anything else on two legs once he's
Or perhaps not, according to Louise Dainty, a confessed rhino lover
who's here with her sister. She disputes the idea that this animal
is essentially two tons of anger. "Yesterday I scratched his
head," she says delightedly. She demonstrates how she'd cooed
to him in a quiet voice. "And he went, 'Hmm? Hmm?' as though
he were speaking to me. He came right up, and I scratched his little
head!" Indeed, one of the oddities of black rhino behavior,
experts say, is that their fierceness in the wild can be offset
by a calmness in captivity. Even Poking Polly was a pussycat when
People move up and down the rows of pens, scribbling on their auction
lists like bettors marking up racing forms. One of them is Mike
Englezakis, who owns the Thabana Safari Lodge near the Botswana
border. The lodge hosts ecotourists part of the year, hunters at
other times. Well-dressed and blunt-talking, Englezakis makes no
apologies for his belief that South African wildlife, including
white rhinos, is a consumable good. "The world has millions
of cattle, pigs and chickens," he says, "for only one
reason: because we raise them in order to eat them." Trying
to protect Africa's wildlife by sequestering it on public land won't
work, he says. "Human needs will always come first, for better
or worse. The minute there is no more grazing for my cow, the wildebeest
must die, because it doesn't belong to anyone. The cow is mine,
it's worth money, so I've got to protect it." By putting a
price tag on a rhino, a zebra, or a kudu, he says, so that people
can own it and make money from it--dead or alive--the species is
suddenly worth cultivating. "For wildlife to survive,"
he concludes almost fiercely, "it has to become a cow."
The next day's auction once again set a record, earning the parks
agency more than 15 million rand or about two million much-needed
dollars. The six black rhinos, destined to be stars at a new tourist
safari park in the Eastern Cape, account for more than $ 300,000
Even the booming market for rhinos, however, doesn't guarantee
their future in South Africa. One of the game industry's weaknesses
is that it's a white man's business. "For local black communities,
game conservation so far hasn't given many tangible benefits other
than jobs," says Khulani Mkhize, the KZN-NCS's new acting CEO.
Owning a piece of a new tourist camp or restaurant could pay off
in the long run, he says, "but where do they get the money
to buy equity in these businesses?"
In the new democratic South Africa, if conservation continues to
be a game for the white elite, the safety of rhino sanctuaries,
public and private, can never be ensured. "Our game reserves
remain fortified areas with highly trained guards carrying automatic
weapons," says Lawrence Anthony, a Natal conservationist. "The
reason is the demand for land by impoverished rural communities
next to them." Many public reserves sit on traditional lands,
he says. The apartheid government would proclaim a park and expel
the inhabitants. Today many communities want to get their land back.
"They've got good memories," Anthony says. "They
know exactly where the traditional boundaries are." A return
to subsistence farming and cattle grazing inside the parks would,
of course, be an ecological disaster. Instead, Anthony has been
working in partnership with several tribal communities on the edge
of the Hluhluwe and Umfolozi parks to establish an adjoining Royal
Zulu Game Reserve. Anthony hopes the reserve, which would rival
Lapalala in size, will once again be home to hundreds of white and
Nokwethemba Biyela, a leader of the Biyela tribe, is a driving
force behind the new reserve. She has brought local people (most
of whom had never seen a live rhino) to visit the Umfolozi reserve.
"Ten years ago, if a black person visited a game park in South
Africa," she says, "it was like he was trespassing."
Small wonder many blacks have mistrusted wildlife authorities more
Says Anthony, "If we involve these people in building their
own game reserves and they start benefiting, we'll protect the rhinos.
I don't see another way to do it."