sunday bloody sunday

4 Dec 2011

The scouts have been patrolling while I was away. Word came yesterday that they found the carcass of a big rhino nine km north of here. About three weeks dead, with the horns chopped out.

That, sadly, is only unusual in that it’s surprising it was there at all in the first place. No rhino crossing the border from neighbouring Kruger National Park (the fence is open in several places) into Mozambique, even if it is into a protected area, is likely to survive for long. Down south, from where I’ve just returned, six rhino entered a few months ago and they were all dead within a week. The line of men with good intent who try to protect them is a thin one, heavily overshadowed by hungry poachers, corrupt officials and the greedy kingpins of organised crime.

The border, which is less than three km from my camp, is a wilderness frontier that lapsed into a mere porous line on the map when the SA government slackened its guard after 94 and withdrew its forces. The eastern boundary of Kruger, the crown jewel of SA’s parks, became a front where cars stolen in SA were exported along bush tracks, illegal immigrants from Mozambique entered on foot and poachers found the door to a rich larder left enticingly ajar.

In the wake of an international outcry about rhino slaughter (numbers are approaching 300 in Kruger alone this year) SA has since redeployed the military and even though it doesn’t seem to be winning the battle, any poachers caught on Kruger soil are hit hard. But on the other side of the fence its a different story.

The Peace Parks Foundation and other private initiatives have succeeded in securing large tracts of almost pristine habitat bordering Kruger on the Mozambican side as conservation areas. These were almost denuded of wildlife during preceding years, but now, with healthy Kruger as a feeder source, there is a fantastic opportunity to give the animals of the wilds more room.

Except for the fact that they get killed when they move in.

It’s not for lack of good intent on the side of the Mozambican government. But down on the ground out in the sticks, it’s not easy to enforce ideals. The government, still in the process of having to rebuild virtually the whole country after almost two decades of war, has limited resources to allocate to such a vast and remote place. These parts are difficult to access and are largely in the hands of the bush-dwelling communities who still live there. Law and order? Few and far between. Corruption is rife and the sky-high prices of rhino horn and other wildlife products are fuelling it further.

Anyway, that’s the background, and it’s this scenario that I find myself in.

I came here for some time out to devote myself to serious writing in an inspiring environment. In order to sustain that, I had to set up comms. Only to find that my camp and my precarious link with the outside world is just about the only working infrastructure in a vast area. And that because of that, I would be asked to relay any news from the front.

Which I did, when word of the dead rhino came in. Upon which, since it seems there’s no-one else nearby with the means, I was asked to try and get to the scene to provide more details.

And that, dear friends and beloved, is how I found myself miles out in the middle of nowhere early this morning with a backpack, a camera and an uneasy tickle down my back.

That's a road, yes.

I drove as far as I could along an old road last used eight years ago. It was heavily overgrown and we had to drag trees out of the way (why do elephant always push trees into the road and not away from it?) or somehow skirt them.

When the going finally became impossible we continued on foot.

A crocodile had made its lair in this cave.

The hike took us up a beautiful river valley, a place I would certainly like to explore again. It was awesome, until we came upon vultures in the trees and the wind brought the smell of death.

A silly notion, I know, but somehow the sight of any large animal in the gaunt guise of mortal decay is always more disturbing than that of something smaller. The great grey pile lay hollow and empty, streaked with the white excretions of the vultures. There were lion- and hyena tracks all over; the whole area was stained and trampled.

It wasn’t a rhino. It was a young elephant bull, not nearly grown, and it lay there with its head crudely hacked open where the little tusks had been removed. The tip of the tail had been severed with something sharp and a flap cut in its side to get to the meat around the ribs.

Was it shot? I chopped into the honeycomb of the skull to find out. There was no bullet entry to the brain, nor did the skin show any bullet holes on the upper side. Maybe there were bullet holes on the side it lay on, but it was too heavy to move. Lions? Not likely – too big for prey. Natural causes? Who knows.

Fact is, in a proclaimed animal conservation area far from human settlement this young bull had fallen prey to human raiders who were probably on their way to or from slaughtering rhino.

Clearly the line of good men is too thin.

The elephant died before the rains near this permanent water hole in an otherwise dry area. A perfect ambush site.

Two buffalo bulls had also met their end close together on a sandspit nearby. (Reason unknown) This pic gives an idea of the size of a big bull.

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