Kruger Park, South Africa: Where Black Poachers Are Hunted as Much as Their Prey

Rangers Rob Thompson and Don English with suspected rhino poachers at Kruger National Park in South Africa, on November 7, 2014. James Oatway/Sunday Times/Gallo/Getty

Updated | Scene 1: Dawn, a private lodge in South Africa. Ten guys from New York’s Long Island, expensively armed and outfitted, head out into the bush to hunt the king of beasts. Over nine days, 10 captive-bred and drugged lions are transported to a private reserve and then released to stumble around in habitat they’ve never seen before.

The hunters head out in jeeps, then climb trees, so they can aim down with high-powered automatic weapons at the disoriented animals. Terrified by the flying bullets, the lions—still doped-up and accustomed to being fed by humans since birth—panic. They cower against fences or squeeze into warthog burrows, but there really is no place to hide. Soon, each of these white Americans will have a trophy lion head to bring back to the USA. And the worst injuries they will have suffered for their efforts are sunburn and a hangover.

Scene 2: Moonlit night, outside Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest public game reserve. Two black men slink through tall buffalo grass on the trail of a rhino. One shoots, the massive beast falls, and the shooter’s partner rapidly slices off its horn. The two men then flee on foot, leaving behind a grotesquely mutilated but possibly still living rhino. That horn will net enough money to buy a car and TV, as well as send their children to high school. And so they run, racing through grasslands where hippos and elephants frequently kill foraging humans, as lion and leopard prowl behind rocks. Their goal: getting over one of the great fences that delineate public and private land before white mercenary soldiers with night-vision goggles hunt them down and kill them.

$3,000 per Pound

The billboards start appearing miles from Kruger park: “Poachers will be poached.” For illiterate poachers, another sign announces, “Dehorned zone,” with a picture of a living rhino without its horn. (Some private game owners remove rhino horns to deter poaching.)

The iconic Big Five animals trophy hunters covet are lion, rhino, elephant, Cape buffalo and leopard, but it is the endangered rhino that has become a potent symbol for the ugly inequality between whites and blacks in post-apartheid South Africa.

The rhinoceros’s bloodlines stretch back to a giant relative that roamed lush grasslands 30 million years ago. “It is a miracle that this prehistoric idiot still exists,” wrote T. Murray Smith, former president of the East Africa Professional Hunters Association. For thousands of years, the primeval beast’s descendants roamed the grasslands of Asia and Africa by the millions, but now fewer than 20,000 of them roam free. South Africa is home to 79 percent of the world’s rhinos, and half of them live in Kruger park. Rhino numbers there and worldwide have been plummeting since Asian demand for their horns exploded about 10 years ago, after a Vietnamese general declared that powdered rhino horn had cured his cancer. Rhino horn sells for $3,000 a pound, which can turn poachers into kings in villages without running water or electricity.

08_18_RhinoRaceWar_03 David Barrett with an elephant he shot dead in Zimbabwe in 2009. Barrett has spent the last 14 years traveling the world hunting big-game animals. Barcoft Media/Getty

South Africa’s apartheid ended in the 1990s, but black leaders from Nelson Mandela to the current president, Jacob Zuma, could not break economic apartheid. Whites own more than 80 percent of the land in South Africa. The slow pace of change has enabled radical political leaders like Julius Malema, who calls for black land reclamation, to gain a strong following and to terrify the white minority who owns the land. Malema has made a career of stoking rage. In 2012, the ruling African National Congress party expelled him for publicly singing an outlawed African song with lyrics containing the phrase “Dubula iBuni” (“Shoot the Boer”).

White colonizers created Kruger park in 1898 by declaring it terra nullius—empty land—ignoring indigenous property and hunting rights, as well as ancestral burial grounds. The old tribal animist traditions quickly became useless in urban slums and communal villages, where the only animals most of South Africa’s blacks encounter are scrofulous dogs. During apartheid, some local villagers still hunted on unclaimed land around Kruger, but in 1991, the year apartheid ended, the South African government instituted the Game Theft Act, which decreed that whoever put enclosures around land containing wild game effectively owned it, along with whatever animals it contained. Long rows of electrified fences went up overnight, marking off hundreds of miles of newly private wild animal range. In rural areas, generations of black men and boys have been cut off from a traditional rite of passage: hunting a wild animal. Tribes whose ancestors would kill a Cape buffalo whenever a chief died in order to bury him in its hide cannot afford the hunting licenses trophy hunters buy for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many can’t afford the $5 daily adult entry fee to Kruger park.

Related: South African trophy hunter crushed to death by elephant in Zimbabwe

Extinction now threatens many game species, and the demand for access to them from wealthy tourists and hunters is increasing. That means individual wild animals can be worth as much as a million dollars to a white landowner, and lodge guests pay big bucks to see not just one or two giraffes and elephants but all the animals. That means the lodges need to bring more animals closer to their property, so some owners lay out food to lure great cats and herbivores within viewing distance and have hired mercenary armies to protect the animals.

Those mercenaries, nearly all white, are hunting poachers, nearly all black. That’s how the most Jurassic of animals walking the Earth today ended up in the middle of an increasingly bloody race war.

Death at Dawn, or Dusk

Sitting under a tree during a three-month African safari in the 1930s, Ernest Hemingway wrote this note for his memoir Green Hills of Africa, “I expected, always, to be killed by one thing or another and I, truly, did not mind that anymore.”

The iconic animals of Africa have always inspired both fear and courage in white men like Papa Hemingway. To sleep near them in the bush at night, to hear their shrieks, roars and growls, to be close enough to smell them, or to encounter them face-to-face at dawn or dusk is a primal thrill that cannot be found in cities or cultivated lands.

A brief encounter with nature “red in tooth and claw” is perhaps the greatest of the white privileges for sale in Africa. Tourists and trophy hunters pay $80 billion annually to photograph—and for a premium, to kill—the great beasts of Africa. The president’s sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are avid trophy hunters whose self-satisfied selfies with carcasses of the Big Five are online. But modern trophy hunting—lions raised in cages and rich Americans shooting at them from moving vehicles—barely resembles the safaris that enthralled Hemingway. The chief danger now is indigestion after too many trips to the lodge’s groaning boards.

08_18_RhinoRaceWar_01 A rhino and her baby walk across a field. Chris Minihane/Getty

But while giraffes, zebras, elephants, lions, baboons and warthogs stalk, clamber and strut across the veld, the one thing tourists and hunters will rarely see on a South African safari is a black South African. They work at the lodges, and sometimes a black “tracker” sits on a high seat affixed to the hood of the safari truck, tracking the old-fashioned way, before the era of GPS, drones and tracking-collared animals. Native black trackers who learned their skills from prior generations have become as rare as the rhino. Most black South Africans have not encountered wild animals for generations.

Related: The cub of Cecil the lion has been killed by a trophy hunter in Zimbabwe

The poachers who track rhino on foot are a lot more like Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt than the pudgy American trophy hunters of today. They clamber over park fences or are driven in through the gates by accomplices. Armed with Czech-made CZ rifles, they sleep rough for days, braving heat, thorny bush, deadly snakes, lions and even rampaging elephants. If they find a rhino, they shoot it and saw off the horn, leaving the dead animal in the bush to be found—or not. Vultures circling over a dead rhino are nature’s first alert to rangers and mercenaries, so to gain more time to escape, poachers have poisoned vast numbers of Kruger park vultures.

If a poacher makes it over the nearest fence with his trophy, he can support an extended family for a generation. If he gets caught—and many do—he can go to prison or be killed on the spot. The reward is so great and the poverty so deep in South Africa that there’s an inexhaustible supply of young men signing up for the job.

‘My 14th War’

To stop poachers, South African landowners and Kruger park have hired battalions of mercenaries and spent millions equipping them with high-tech gear, planes and drones. These mercenaries come from all over the world but are usually white. Recently, VET PAW (Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife), an American nonprofit, began sending veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to South Africa to train both black and white anti-poaching rangers, putting their military training to work on a mission they can feel good about—protecting the rhino.  

The ground around one mercenary “forward operating base” I visited was decorated with bleached buffalo and elephant skulls. The mercenaries use this hut as a headquarters and are dispatched in teams to sleep in the bush for a week at a time. Using modern combat technology, they track, hunt and sometimes kill poachers. The law allows them to shoot only after they are shot at, but as one mercenary told me, “What happens in the bush stays in the bush.”

Conservationists counted 6,102 poached rhinos between 2008 and 2016, with the vast majority killed in South Africa. No one knows how many black men have been killed in the bush while trying to kill rhino, but the president of Mozambique last year complained that 500 men had been shot in and around the park. Other conservationists estimate the number could be in the thousands.

A lean, retired South African army officer we will call Officer A., because he refused to speak on the record, works for a consortium of private landowners. “This is my 14th war,” he says. “It’s like going to war in Angola.”