4 February 2012
A Saturday is a day like any other out here in the bush. No closed factories or lack of rush-hour traffic to distinguish it by. At noon I’m writing in my tent when three scouts who’d been out on patrol arrive and call me outside. With them is a ragged man in handcuffs.
They tell me they’d spotted three poachers, two of them armed, not far from the nearby border with SA’s Kruger National Park and hurriedly prepared an ambush. In the clash that ensued, with one shot fired, the two armed poachers managed to get away but the other one was captured.
‘I know this man,’ I say to them. ‘Have a look at his legs, there must be a gunshot wound there.’
Seven months ago I had just entered Mozambique and was still at the border post when a vehicle with frontier guards and rangers pulled up in a cloud of dust. In the back were two men they’d caught, part of a band of sixteen rhino poachers they’d tried to ambush near Kruger Park. The two had been wounded during the exchange of fire. When I went over to have a look I saw that one of them (eighteen years old) had a stomach wound and the other had taken a bullet through the lower leg. I took photographs, suspecting that it could well be the younger one’s last portrait (he did die two days later), but never imagining that I’d see the other one through my lens again.
There it is, when a dirty bandage is removed: A partly healed wound on the man’s dusty shin. Same customer, same story, the action even took place in almost the same spot. And once again he was lucky enough to have dodged the final bullet.
What makes a wounded man willingly risk his life again? Why is he even free to poach again? With the help of an interpreter I spend the next three hours trying to get some idea of what goes on in the life and mind of a rhino poacher.
It’s a frustrating interview. Apart from being a practised liar, he’s got no intention of incriminating himself, despite my assurances that I have nothing to do with law enforcement. He does however admit that they were after rhino with a rifle and an AK47. Who they were and how they went about it I don’t need to know, I’m more interested in the WHY.
His story is that of many of the bush folk around here. Never been to school, herded cattle as a kid, sometimes hungry, always poor. Went off to work on the mines in SA for many years, returning home eventually. Fled to SA again during the civil war, losing his ten cattle in the process. When it was over he came to settle on his little shamba near the Limpopo river and got on with living off the land. Maize, beans, sweet potatoes, groundnuts and cassava; he sells some of it at the market. He owns four cattle to plough his fields with and an iron handplough of his own. When he ploughs for others he gets M500 (ZAR150) a day. To build a hut for someone (the youngsters of today don’t know how to build, he says) he charges M2000. For a two-roomed hut the cost is one cow. Then there’s the fish he and his children catch and sell, the brooms he makes from mnala grass, the wooden vessels for stamping maize, and the bamboo baskets for screening the flour. He’s proud of the fact that he’s pretty successful at making a living. Anything between 5000M and 12000M a month, he says, which is not bad for these parts.
What does he stand to gain by poaching rhino? As an axeman/porter he’s in line to get the equivalent of one kg of rhino horn, at a going rate of 100 000M/kg (for the men doing the killing), if a mission yields the goods. If it doesn’t, he gets nothing.
I look at the dusty figure sitting against the tree before me. Lean and defiant, with a black shoe on one foot and a brown one on the other. It’s easy to understand the incentive, but I still don’t see his side of things. Especially not after learning that he’d once sold the cooked meat of a stolen dog.
(For that he got eight years in jail in Maputo. For poaching rhino seven months ago, apparently only a bullet through the leg. He says he was never charged.)