Life on a Knife Edge: The Truth About Rhino Poaching from the People on the Ground

“How emotional can it be? We all know what happens; poachers take the horn, rhinos die – circle of life and all that” the naïve words which escaped my mouth just an hour before my eyes were opened to the blinding truth of South Africa’s poaching crisis. In a sense, I was right; we do all know that rhinos are being killed for their horn but never did I imagine the intensity of commitment that private rhino owners have shown in order to save this precious species. During a recent study trip to Mankwe Wildlife reserve, Operations manager Lynne MacTavish spoke to our group about her experiences with poaching, the trauma of losing a rhino and the battle she now faces to ensure their protection.

The things we take for granted every day; sitting on the sofa to read a book, meals out with the family, going to see a movie – things we all do to relax are a luxury the Mankwe staff cannot afford. Christmas dinner, New year’s eve and even birthday celebrations are put on hold because those are the times poachers hit knowing that you’ll be distracted or busy. You just learn to get on with life, says Lynne but every single one of the Mankwe staff has some stress related illness; whether that’s stomach ulcers, migraines and we’re all sleep deprived. But how can you blame them, knowing that their rhinos and their own lives are always at risk.

The stunning super moon of September 2016, a supernatural beauty admired by all was disastrous for rhino owners in South Africa. During the 3 nights of bright moonlight, 137 rhinos were poached from reserves in Southern Africa. Poachers use the full moon like a torch and can be in and out of a reserve in 20 minutes; taking with them hundreds of thousands of dollars of rhino horn and the life of Africa’s gentle giants.

Sweet Chilli; a male rhino living at Mankwe who we met during our trip. (Cred: Emma Atkin)

This post makes up just half the story; exploring the fight of those on the ground who lay their life on the line to protect the White Rhinos of South Africa. Part 2 will focus on the politics of saving a species and the methods being introduced to reduce poaching.

 “When I sat crying next to Winnie, I swore to be her voice and I swore that she wouldn’t have died in vain.” The words of Lynne MacTavish of Mankwe Wildlife Reserve as she begins her traumatic tale of the worst day of her life. “I don’t sugar coat anything, because unless you understand it, unless it hurts, you’re not going to do anything”. October 10th marks the day when Lynne’s reserve was hit by poachers, and the anniversary of the death of two female rhino.

Rhinos were introduced to Mankwe 25 years ago. The only reason being for the love of the species; they’re iconic but also ecosystem engineers. This means they change the savannah, playing a huge role to a number of species creating grasslands for grazing species. There are many bird species that are dependent on them; drongo, ox-peckers and cattle egrets who follow them and eat the insects as they kick them up. There’s a large community of dung beetles that exist solely on rhino dung; they have a huge role to play in an ecosystem. For most private rhino owners like Mankwe, those were the only reason we got rhino; because they’re important to the savannah ecosystem and just beautiful creatures. They take your breath away every time you see them.

You can understand how the staff become attached to these animals. They have individual personalities, they have bonds amongst each other, they’re just gentle giants. It’s that stupid thing on their face. That’s why they’re being killed and if you spend any time at a reserve you can see how docile they are and how easy it would be to kill them. They’re really just sitting ducks and we have to be their voice if we’re going to save them.

We all know they’re dying; the numbers are declining and it’s all stats but it’s the way they’re dying that is horrific and it’s really unacceptable that we can stand here and let this happen to them. We are probably the poorest of all the local reserves yet when the poaching crisis hit in 2008 it was our passion that meant that not a single rhino was lost at Mankwe. Not until October 10th 2014.

The reserve was very quiet. Evening patrols completed, rhinos chased in from the fence, the staff settled for another night in the savannah. 4am: Lynne goes out on the morning patrol just like every other day but something is wrong “I didn’t see a single animal for 6km up the fence line and I just knew something had happened”. The night had been very windy and strong winds muffle any sound.  After checking the fences and finding no current where there should have been 5000 volts, Lynne was on high alert. All the trackers were sent out with radios and on the call came in that everyone had been dreading.

“Poached Rhino”

 “I can’t tell you what those two words do to you” Lynne shakes her head as if trying to rid herself of the memory “ you don’t know who they’ve killed, you don’t know how many they’ve killed, and you don’t know what you’re about to drive in to. Charles (the reserve manager) and I jumped in the vehicle, we went to where the carcass had been reported, and as we approached the whole road was just full of blood. I stayed in the car. Charles walked in and I just hear him screaming…and crying and choking. “Who is it?” I screamed.  “She’s unrecognisable” Charles replied, because of what they’d done to her. I had to go in – my dad wasn’t here so I’m now the owner of the reserve – and what I saw haunts me every day.

 We worked out that it was Cheeky Cow and she had a six month old calf; Charlie. Charlie was so precious to us because she was the only female calf we’d had in about 6 years. She was the cutest little thing. Charlie and Cheeky Cow had been in the same place for about a month, on the opposite side of the reserve and slowly the story of what had happened that night unfolded.

 They had been sleeping near a water hole, the poachers had got in, fairly close to the road and they shot her in the head. Cheeky Cow jumped up and she ran to get them away from her calf. She ran the entire width of Mankwe with a bullet in her head. When she got to the fence, she found 3 of our other rhino; Jodie, Rain and Winnie. She obviously ran to them because she wanted comfort, but the poachers now had all four of them against the fence and they opened fire again. They hit her again, she went down but she managed to stand. They shot her again. This time she couldn’t recover but she was still alive.

 To make sure that she didn’t hurt them or run away before they got the horn off; they severed her spinal cord. That animal was alive when they hacked into her face with a machete and an axe. Her skull is out on the lawn of Mankwe’s Waterbuck camp and how deep they went into her skull to get every ounce of rhino horn is sickening. To know she was still alive when they did that; this is a rhino Lynne and her staff have known for 15 years who had raised 6 beautiful calves. Walking up and see that is something Lynne will never get over. But there was no time for mourning. It was just a mad panic to find out how many they had hit.

  Not knowing what else to do, Lynne just started walking. “I found fresh tracks, fresh dung and in the distance I could see a rhino lying down by a tree and I started to run. As I got closer, hundreds of vultures just started lifting up from the grass. There was another dead rhino. As I got closer I realised it was Winnie”. Winnie was 17 months pregnant; the gestation period of a White Rhino is 18 months. Everyone at Mankwe was counting down the days until her baby was born and there she was. Just a bloated mass covered in flies; inside of her was a beautiful fully formed calf. But rigor mortis had set in and the calf was gone. If you work out that a rhino has 8-10 calves in their lifetime, who each go on to have 8-10 calves themselves, those poachers had really killed about 50 rhino by killing Winnie and her calf.  “I just sat there with her and cried,” says Lynne “I didn’t have the strength to call the police or do anything and I think at that point I’ve never felt so alone in my life. Because I didn’t know who to turn to”.

Lynne and Winnie the poached rhino; this photo went viral and was voted in the top 10 saddest photos of 2016 (cred: Lynne MacTavish).

Private rhino owners re required to attend workshops on how to handle a rhino poaching, learning to protect every shred of evidence so that you stand a better chance of catching the poachers. Charles and Lynne walked in and out on a single path, securing the whole scene so that no one could go near it. Yet when the police arrived announcing “This is our scene now, we’ll be taking over” all 30 officers walked in. They trampled over tracks, threw their cigarette butts down in the bush and took selfies with the rhino; appalling behaviour considering that poaching is a high priority crime in South Africa. The forensic team couldn’t even manage to turn up with the correct equipment, leaving Charles to perform a post-mortem on Cheeky Cow.

“Lynne, where’s the fire?” joked the Captain “it’s lunchtime and this is good meat”.

They wanted to eat her.

“We actually had to put camera traps on her because she was near the road and they could come back during the night and start hacking her apart,” recalled Lynne. “Not only are you dealing with the trauma of your rhino being killed but you’ve got to deal with the police as well.”

 Bearing in mind the police had only left an hour before Winnie was found, they took their time in returning. Charles met them at the gate and quickly realised why – they were all drunk. By the time they arrived at the scene to take a statement they couldn’t and Lynne had to write her own. They sat in their vehicles, listening to the football, drinking cans of beer and throwing them out the window. Lynne managed to take photographs of everything this time.

 “I was climbing into the back of a vehicle to take photos of all that alcohol when the captain jumped out of his car, threw me to the ground and they roared off through the reserve.”  Says Lynne. They were chased through the whole reserve and stopped by security at the gates to be breathalysed. Now this is crazy, this is the police. 

The end result was that a disciplinary was filed against that captain by Lynne and her team. In the disciplinary, Lynne expressed her concern that they would no longer investigate the rhino poaching case at all and they didn’t. “We hired private investigators, we were working with informers; we basically knew who had done it, we were getting them all the information they still did nothing.” A year later the case was closed. It just gives you some idea of how hopeless the whole situation is.

As it stands, Mankwe have only lost Cheeky Cow and Winnie to poaching but the fear now is that poachers have found the reserve. The ruthless murder of these two animals for a substance as basic as compressed keratin is horrific and cannot be permitted to continue. Read more of Lynne’s story in part 2 which details the methods of poacher prevention and looking to a future where the lives of rhino and their owners are no longer at risk.

About Louise 1 Article
Hi guys! My name's Louise and I am a third year student, studying Animal Biology at the University of Gloucestershire, UK. My travel experiences drove my passion to study wildlife and conservation; I have been lucky enough to work with on a breeding project for pandas in Sichuan, China as well as visit South Africa to study the wide biodiversity of the savannah. I have had a little experience writing when I undertook an internship with BBC CountryFile Magazine. In the future, I would love to work in scientific journalism; especially reporting on the conservation of endangered species and habitats. I hope that by sharing my articles people will become more aware of human impacts on our fragile planet. Connect with me on LinkedIn which I regularly update with any new experiences!

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