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.

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.

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."

When the mercenaries catch poachers, they are supposed to bring them to the local jail. But Officer A. says local authorities don't hold them for long, and the cases against them never stick: Nonsterile evidence rooms are stacked with unidentified weapons; nothing is bagged; there's no chain of evidence. He claims even fingerprinting is useless because the rural police stations' paper recordkeeping is a shambles. Even if Officer A. did have a shot at making serious cases, he thinks the poaching would continue. "These are inside jobs," he says. "Lots of South Africans take jobs at the parks in order to be near the poaching. The horrible truth is, the rangers can't be trusted."

Officer A. says with admiration that the poachers are extremely fit and adds that he'd have more success if the authorities would let him hunt them with dogs. "If you can find the guy with three hours left to the gate on foot, you can catch him. But they run. If we had dogs, the guy gets torn apart."

Officer A. believes the best thing wildlife conservationists could do to save the rhino would be to set up a legal defense fund for him if he gets arrested. "I don't care—I will be the test case."

Like Shooting Lions in a Barrel

The trophy hunters are mostly white Americans, although there are plenty of moneyed Europeans and Russians. They are almost always men and, curiously, often have medical degrees. They pay from $30,000 to $100,000 for the right to kill one of the Big Five—the American lobby group Safari Club International auctions off hunts for as much as $300,000 at its annual convention in Las Vegas. The money helps pay for the intense lobbying of governments and international wildlife conservation organizations, which are under pressure to ban or severely restrict trophy hunts.

In 2015, trophy hunting made headlines when Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killed Cecil, the largest male lion in a pride in the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Palmer's guide had lured the lion off protected territory with an elephant carcass. In death, Cecil—who had been fitted with a tracking collar by Oxford University–affiliated researchers—became a martyr and an icon, with an outraged social media following baying for a ban on trophy hunting. In response, the Zimbabwean government charged Palmer's local guide (who is white) with hunting without a permit, then dropped the charge in 2016. (It has not dropped a similar charge against the black Zimbabwean landowner where the kill occurred.) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that American hunters bringing trophy animals home had to prove they were not from protected areas.

Members of the Kruger National Park Veterinary Wildlife Services in South Africa guide a sedated white rhino toward a loading truck in Kruger National Park, on October 17, 2014. Kruger National Park relocated four rhinoceroses from a high-risk poaching area to a safer zone as part of ongoing strategic rhinoceros management plan. Stefan Heunis/AFP/Getty

Other than that, Cecil's death didn't change much. In July, another American trophy hunter blasted another collared lion outside the same park. The latest trophy was a son of Cecil named Xanda.

The dwindling supply of lions drives a new and growing industry in South Africa: wild game farming for "canned hunts." Because trophy hunters will pay a premium for a guaranteed kill, wildlife ranching has become such a big business in South Africa that it is drawing food and water resources away from traditional agriculture. To make extra-large lions, breeders are now cross-breeding lions with tigers to make "ligers." Because trophy hunters prize rarity, breeders also conjure up blue-eyed white lions. All are born and raised for one purpose: Their taxidermied heads will someday decorate the den of a château in Brussels or a McMansion in Peoria.

Poaching the Poachers

White landowners are also farming rhinos—thousands of them now breed and live in captivity, and despite conservationists' efforts to change the law, South Africa allows rhino horn to be traded domestically. Rhinos can and do live without their horns, and that's why some farmers are not terribly eager to curtail the Asian demand that inspires the poachers. That is another stark inequity in the rhino wars: White farmers can sell horn, but blacks are shot for stealing it.

To ask about the poacher's side of this war is, as South African conservationist Martin Bornman, manager of the eco-tourism operation African Conservation Experience, puts it, like trying to defend child rape. No one wants to hear it. "But there is a growing sense with respect to the poachers," he says, "that white people get away with murder."

Related: Lion pair killed, decapitated in South African sanctuary a year after rescue from mistreatment in circuses

Black villagers see poaching as both a right and a necessity. Annette Hubschle, a criminologist and researcher with the Cape Town Environmental Observatory, calls poaching a protest against the "systematic exclusion" of blacks from game reserves. She found villagers along the park who see the poachers as Robin Hoods, even though many of them have long criminal careers, including murder and gun and drug crimes. "We are using rhino horn to free ourselves," one horn kingpin told her.

As villagers tacitly support the poachers, mercenaries have stepped up their brutal campaign to drive them out. In an interview last year, a 23-year-old man named Sboniso Mhlongo described a mass nighttime roundup of black males around the edge of Kruger park. "I was sleeping, it was raining, and it was 1 o'clock, and I was shocked when people arrived, banged the door and broke windows," Mhlongo said. "These people walked in with a white man and asked me for a gun. Then I was shackled, and I wasn't given any answers. I was dragged outside into a truck."

Rob Thompson searches from a helicopter for a poacher on the run at Kruger National Park in South Africa, on November 7, 2014. James Oatway/Sunday Times/Gallo/Getty

The truck collected more men from nearby villages, and eventually, Mhlongo said, the blacks were taken out of the truck one by one, interrogated and then "beaten until we couldn't breathe. Beaten to a pulp. And then we were dropped off at home afterwards."

Mhlongo said "these people" came to his house three times, always at night. The other two times, he hid while they ransacked his home.

Poachers are also attacking humans. One gang is believed to have killed a wildlife veterinarian in front of his wife and baby in a carjacking near Kruger park in 2009. Another crew of poachers recently attacked an animal refuge center, killed and dehorned rhino and raped a female volunteer.

But the ad hoc, private, military-style response to the rhino war is "priming a massive, explosive situation," Bornman says, "which, of course, will go way beyond wild animals."

Bury the Poacher

The lobbyists for trophy hunting insist they are true conservationists because their money supports habitat—private, nonagricultural land—where those creatures they want to shoot can roam. Hunting fees helped finance an effort to bring up the white rhino population after the animal was nearly poached and hunted to extinction in the 1960s and 1970s. But conservationists with nongovernmental organizations involved in global wildlife protection admit that allowing rich, white people to kill iconic game, while arresting and sometimes killing poor blacks who do the same thing, pours fuel on South Africa's political fires.

Some conservationists are pushing massive relocation programs. Since poachers wiped out the rhinos in Botswana, groups like the World Wildlife Fund and other deep-pocketed conservationists have been relocating South African rhinos to areas in Botswana that are sparsely populated, where the rhinos are believed to be safer. But the price is prohibitive—tens of thousands of dollars to dart each animal with tranquilizers and chopper it across borders. And while that's good for the rhino, it's deadly for the South African tourist economy.

Conservationists have experimented with public-private partnerships to involve black communities in wildlife tourism. But apartheid has left such a legacy of deep racial distrust that cooperative efforts that have worked in countries like Kenya and Tanzania don't take in South Africa, according to a representative of one of the largest global conservation entities (who asked to remain anonymous).

Related: South Africa's top court has lifted a ban on the rhino horn trade

To white South Africans, rhinos and the other iconic animals are "incredibly emotional," Bornman says. They are what makes Africa special. That's not true in black communities. "Here, you see the seeds of the racial disconnect," he says. "And if you went to the funeral of a poacher, you would see this person is revered, and it's not shameful."

The late Zimbabwean journalist Godknows Nare last year recorded a poacher's funeral. June Mabuse, the dead man's brother, addressed the mourners and complained that the family had received no information about how or why he was shot, and had been barred from performing traditional death rituals near where he was killed. "Our grandfathers were kicked out, and now we can't even step in because it's a game reserve," Mabuse said. "Our government and foreign countries should plead for us to be able to go inside, because those animals, first of all, are not theirs—they are God's creation. Today, we are being killed like animals, which makes me wonder: Which life is more important, ours or the animals? It seems like the animals are now more valuable than human life. Because we are poor. There is no work, and people are going in there to try and put food on their tables. They are being killed.... Thousands have been killed in that park. And only hundreds of animals."

A field ranger on a anti-poaching patrol at Kruger National Park in South Africa, on November 7, 2014. The suspected rhino poachers were in possession of a .375 hunting rifle fitted with a silencer, as well as an array of machetes and knives. The ranger patrol is conducting a military-style campaign to combat the scourge of rhino poaching. James Oatway/Sunday Times/Gallo/Getty

Brian Jones runs a large animal rehabilitation center near the northern end of Kruger park, nursing wounded animals back to health, before he tries to re-wild them. An evangelical Christian who believes humanity is in the biblical last days, he deplores rhino poaching and the poisoning of vultures to hide the poachers' work. But he also recognizes the racial component in all this. He says black rangers call the white rangers "white dogs," while whites call blacks "kaffir," an outlawed word comparable in offensiveness to the N-word in the United States.

"The Big Five are found nowhere else, and we have killed most of them," Jones says. "Now there are no animals left. We kicked out the blacks. My African staff are not involved in wildlife at all. They are getting killed"—by mercenaries and by wild animals in the bush—"and getting no compensation for it. Their kids don't even know animals. Here is how they look at it: "Are you saying you prefer a rhino to a black man?"

For many white hunters, safari tourists and conservationists, the answer is yes.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said Godknows Nare was South African; he was Zimbabwean. It also mistakenly said apartheid ended in 1993; it ended in 1991. The number of poached rhinos conservationists counted between 2008 and 2016 was 6,102, not 6,094. Also, this article has been updated with the fact that VET PAW is a nonprofit and does not consider its vets to be mercenaries.