Environment, Recommended, World Affairs

War at the Tip of a Rhino Horn

Giraffe and zebra scatter as the shadow of our helicopter passes over Kruger Park. Treetops whip and hornbills fly away. We are low now, and begin to circle as nearby elephants trumpet in defiance. A Ranger called Neels pulls the starboard helo door open and leans out with his gun. Our headsets are full of chatter, and everyone’s in a hurry. It’s been a full hour since a local Ranger reported hearing the shot—a .458, popular among rhino poachers. By now, it’s likely the poachers already have cut the rhino’s face and taken the horn.

And then we see it, between the Ironwood and Marula trees: a mother and calf. The mother is dead, but her horn is intact, the poachers having been scared off before we’d approached. The surviving calf, a young male, nuzzles his dead mother for protection from the helicopter. Rhino calves are known to stay by their mother even as hyenas eat her body from the inside out.

This was at least the fourth such call received today by Rangers at Kruger Operations Center, who oversee the 19,485 square-kilometer Kruger National Park and game reserve in northeastern South Africa. This is a war. And this autumn, while working through EDGE, the counter-poaching and conservation organization that I co-founded in 2017, I got a peek at the front lines.

*  *  *

Kruger National Park, roughly the size of Israel, is one of the largest and most ecologically diverse parks in the world. On morning drives, we are charged by bull elephants and attacked by baboons. We watch leopards walk up to our car, as rhino and kudu and giraffe pass by. It is truly a kind of paradise, unique even among other African preserves. And so it’s easy to forget that this paradise is also a flash point in the battle against poaching.

The park is maintained and controlled by Rangers, under the direction of Regional Ranger Don English, a true expert. Section Rangers control various parts of the park. And under them operate the Field Rangers, who work in the bush for days at a time, tracking and confronting the poachers. Kruger is losing Rhino at a rate of approximately 10 per week, with other species such as elephant, lion and pangolin (a large anteater, hunted for its meat and unique scales) under attack as well. Since the market for these animals exploded in recent years, the Rangers have struggled to get the upper hand.

As part of these countermeasures, 29-year veteran Bruce Leslie, the park’s Head of Special Operations, has hand-picked 20 Field Rangers to staff a team informally known as the “Lions.” These Special Rangers represent a dramatic evolution in the anti-poaching war. Leslie, whose right hand bears scars from a leopard attack, is training his men in tools and tactics more commonly associated with military warfare: night-vision technology, thermal imaging, intelligence gathering, and the use of Malinois Belgian Shepherds to track and engage poachers (the same breed and capabilities as are used by U.S. Special Operations K9 teams). Like the soldiers who fight drug dealers in Mexico or fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Rangers go by one-word names such as Witness, Wiseman and Present, in order to protect their families from poacher retribution.

Of course, poaching isn’t unique to Africa, or to our time. But poachers’ methods have changed. In the past, parks such as Kruger were a place for what might have been called speculative hunting. Criminals would collect some horn, or lion paws, then try to sell them where they could. Groups such as the Endangered Species Protection Unit ran clandestine stings to capture these fortune hunters.

Things got noticeably worse beginning in 2007, when a more ruthless enterprise to slaughter rhino began targeting Kruger and other areas. In 2003, there were 13 rhino killed in the park. By 2015, that number exploded to over 800. The horns are worth an estimated $60,000 per kg on the black market, where they are ground up into powder and sold to the gullible as pseudo-cures for cancer and impotence. The influx of more money into the criminal trade has brought a new level of sophistication and cruelty. Some poachers, for instance, are known to poison elephant carcasses as a means to kill the vultures who feast on the carcasses—since they know the Rangers rely upon the birds to help spot fallen animals and map the movements of poacher teams.

The men who fight the poachers are inspiringly devoted to their work, despite modest pay. Each one I’ve met has a personal connection to the area and the campaign to protect its animals. Corporal Thomas (I will not use full names) came to the Rangers following the death of his brother, also a ranger, from illness. Another lives in the park with the rhinos full-time, out of fear that he’d be at greater danger beyond the park’s confines.

The poachers, too, are locals. Many are friends and even family of the Rangers. Poverty is rampant in this part of the world. And the offer of what amounts to a year’s salary to hack up a single animal is hard to turn down. Many locals have never seen a rhino, and so feel no emotional connection to its existence.

Behind the poachers lie more sinister foes—the black-market conglomerates that control the trade at a wholesale level, often from bases in southeast Asia. Destitute villagers may split 120,000 Rand (about $8,000) among them for a single horn—minus the cost of the guns they buy to do the job. The horn’s value is many times that when it hits the market, being more valuable, ounce for ounce, than gold.

Some collectors prize an entire horn. But mostly it is ground down and sold as a powder. You could make a similar substance from grinding up your own fingernails—or an ordinary barnyard animal’s hooves—since the structural material in all these things is the same, keratin. It is only medical superstition that vests this common stuff with the artificial value that fuels so much African carnage and despeciation.

The use of middlemen serves to obscure the true operatives from the low-level poachers. Further north, I’m told, there are reports that groups such as Boko Haram get funding from illegal wildlife trade, and that the same trade pipelines are used to traffic sex slaves and weapons— though such reports are disputed and difficult to prove. (For more on this debate, I recommend Keith Somerville’s Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa; and the 2015 documentary film Warlords of Ivory, in which National Geographic’s Bryan Christy tracked the fake-ivory trade to Joseph Kony’s Ugandan child-abduction cult, the Lord’s Resistance Army.)

In 2010, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tasked a fact-finding group with investigating links between poaching and terrorism in South Africa, which involved interviews with Rangers and other park officials. Nothing concrete came of this investigation. But as Congressman Ted Poe of Texas wrote for CNN in 2014, “According to an 18-month investigation commissioned by the Elephant Action League in 2011, the [Somalian] al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab generated between $200,000 and $600,000 a month from tusks. This vast sum of blood money accounted for about 40% of Al-Shabaab’s total operating budget. These terrorist poachers not only kill African Animals, but are accused of murdering 60 Wildlife wardens in 2012 as well.”

Thankfully, anti-poachers are forming their own networks, too: Officials in Kenya, Namibia, Mozambique and other parts of Africa are consulting with Kruger’s Rangers to improve their operations. This is part of the mandate of EDGE, which works in various countries to co-ordinate information and training to assist in developing robust animal security. Co-ordination is critical, including the tracking of emerging market trends. Some items—lion paws, hedgehogs, ivory, pangolin scales— are used by traditional muti doctors to make purported remedies. Lion paws often are boiled or ground down and sold as fake tiger paws in Asia. In some northern areas, elephant ivory is back in demand because the rhino have all been hunted, and so there is no horn to be had. Poachers now are pushing further south, like a wildfire gutting a forest. On every trip to Kruger, Rhinos seem a little harder to find.

Direct engagement is just one tool in the fight against poaching. There are also sting operations used to identify criminals, community education campaigns, animal orphanages and breeding programs, and tourism. The field work of the Rangers is the last line of defense. Before the crack of a rifle betrays the poachers’ presence, the Field Rangers try to find them first—by looking for what they call spoor, a general term describing the footprints, broken thorns and communication symbols (such as tied sticks) left behind by poachers as they sneak through the park.

Though the park is beautiful, it can be just as deadly to the Rangers as the poachers. From the venomous Mamba to the leopards, lions, crocodiles and even poisonous thorns (not to mention the buffalo, which can be surprisingly dangerous), there are many ways to die in the bush. One learns quickly to listen to the warning signs, which may be communicated through the movement of oxtails or the flight path of insects. Native knowledge is paramount in the fight.

*  *  *

It’s Friday evening. We’re enjoying an evening braai (or barbecue) on the sand along a tributary of the Sabie River. It’s peaceful listening to the birds as the moon makes its appearance in the sky. We cook local meat and listen to astronomy lessons. It’s easy to forget in this natural paradise that we’re in the middle of a combat zone. A Ranger named Sam speculates that poachers in the area may believe the Rangers will take the weekend off since today is payday. But for the Special Rangers, there are no days off. Which is why they are war-weary. You can see it behind their smiles and jokes and texting sessions with girlfriends. A huge weight rests on the shoulders of men who, in most cases, are still in their twenties.

Evening braai (barbecue) on the Sabie River

After dinner, as I’m riding shotgun in the helo, we thump over a massive herd of Cape Buffalo. I spot a pride of lion devouring something, possibly a zebra. The sun sets slowly behind us, casting rich gold light on the hills along the Mozambique border just ahead of us. We circle to clear the big game out of our landing area and then set down for the evening mission. I yank the handle to open the front door, and look back to offer good luck to the team as they head into the bush. But they’re already into the tall grass, a dog named Anti pulling hard on the leash, eager to track.

But these men don’t always need canine help to track poachers. They can see things in the landscape that I can only imagine. They know this place. It is their home. And as they ready for a long and dangerous night, they’re determined to defend their birthright. I’m here because I am committed to helping them, along with EDGE, the Honorary Rangers program run by South African National Parks service, and the NGOs that support it.

If you can, please visit Kruger National Park. There’s no place on earth like it. Every rhino sighting is a reward. It’s one of the few places left on earth where, for now, you can be sure to eventually see one. On any morning game drive, in fact, you’ll likely see all of the Big Five—rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo. What you likely won’t see are the officers standing valiantly between the most sought after game and the poachers seeking to kill them.

What the Rangers do they do on behalf of all of us—for every rhino loss is a global loss. If you want to help the Special Rangers, who often need such basic necessities as boots and other outdoor gear, you can contribute directly to SANParks through the Honorary Rangers program, or through the EDGE web site. But whether or not you choose to contribute, please help spread the word about the men who are putting their lives at risk to fight a growing scourge.


Nathan Edmondson is an American writer whose creations include The Punisher and Black Widow. He is the co-founder of EDGE—Ecological Defense Group, an NGO devoted to the innovative conservation of African wildlife.

Featured image: Kruger park Rangers arrive on the scene of a rhino killed by poachers.


  1. How so?

    If all resources, including wildlife, were in private hands, then the owners of such resources would take good care of their capital assets. If Kruger National Park would be mine then I would start out by hiring the top half dozen (former) poachers & pay them more money than what they made through poaching & get them to police my park’s area. Then I would sell the right to hunt rhinos in the park, but that wouldn’t include the sale of the rhino’s horn: just a photo with the dropped beast. I would sell the horn in China for the highest bidder. I would make damn sure that my rhino population is sustainable (to properly use a much-abused word).

  2. what if the problem of poaching persists, because your control over the market of rhino horn does not fulfill the demand, and those that demand it resort to poachers once again? what if any hunting of rhinos is detrimental to their survival, because of habitat destruction due to human expansion?

    if you hand out two tags every year, the poachers are still going to poach. the problem of a poor population with few marketable (in a modern sense) skills, persists - these people dont all have land to farm. they need employment, and if there is not enough, they will resort to “out of market” activities for income.

  3. It will not: all private owners of rhinos would behave the same way, i.e. would defend their property to their best abilities. Those who wouldn’t do so would lose ownership of the land (they would get bought out) & the new owner would behave more responsibly (toward herself!).

  4. That’s a limitation of your thinking: there wasn’t a word said about me being a single provider. But assuming that I’m a single provider would mean that I’m a monopoly position in the rhino horn market: I could ask for practically any price (and some Chinese are very rich nowadays). And with a practically unlimited revenue stream, I could afford to buy autonomous drones which would hover over Kruger park 24/7 & detect any poachers. It might lead to an arms race between poachers & me: but I could make it very expensive indeed for the poachers.

  5. Lots of problems with this report. First, I wouldn’t recommend giving money to SANParks. It is a government department and, like all government departments in South Africa, corrupt to the core. You might as well set your money on fire. Second, I found the reference to “native knowledge” of the area Abit silly. Game reserves are fenced off from the general population. People don’t live in the wild or hunt for food,so it’s not like there are any mystical tracking skills. They get taught. I sympathize greatly with the rangers. I think the number who have died doing their job is in the hundreds. But they should not be the last line of defence. Here are the problems: poachers know where to find the rhino because people in the game reserves tell them where they have been moved. The rhino horn gets out because customs officials are bribed. Even when rhinos have their horns surgically removed they might be killed for the nub. Guns are very hard for common citizens to procure but somehow poachers and criminals in South Africa get them easily enough. (Actually, at one point, police practically armed criminals). So what helps? Well, drones are useful scouts for the rangers. Also, I think it might help to flood the market with fake rhino horn and drive the price down. But buggerall will happen because TIA and too many officials in South Africa want the rhino trade to exist because there is money to be made from it. Anyway, poaching is but one of many problems in the country. South Africa has it all: the big five, blackouts, xenophobia, state capture, you name it.

  6. At least once a year round up the animals, remove the horns, making the animals useless to the poachers, sell the collected horns to pay for the process.

  7. I wish the solution was that easy. First, removing the rhino horn is an elaborate and expensive procedure. It’s also potentially dangerous for the animal due to possible anaesthetic complications. Second, a nub remains after the procedure ( it has to,you can’t cut too deep). Poachers will still kill the rhino for the nub. Third, sell the rhino horn to who? To the Triads? Setting up shop in Asian countries is difficult, and you would likely be shook down by local gangsters. Also, the commitment to solve poaching is less than commitment to make money from it

  8. “I wish the solution was that easy.”

    If mankind can fly people to the moon where they drive around in a buggy and return them home safely, I believe he can figure away to round up the rhinos anesthetize them, remove the horn, apply antibiotics, outfit the animal with a tracking device and sell the horn. It was my understanding the horn fetched a substantial sum which could be used to finance the operation.

    Admittedly my proposal was somewhat tongue and cheek but I was attempting to make the point there is more than one way to skin a cat. Another possibility could be to covertly flood the market with keratin based powder like from horse hooves. However I appreciate you taking the time to outline some of the difficulties involved.

  9. @Kapeth

    Typed to quickly. I meant to praise your idea about flooding the rhino horn market, not co-opt it. Thanks again for your response.

  10. Isn’t Kruger precisely the park when a man trampled by elephants and eaten by lions was found on April? See, that is the only fate poachers deserve.

    Only good poacher is dead poacher. Only thing better than dead poacher is dying poacher ratting out his friends. Rangers are there to capture poachers? Mistake, they should be there to kill. Either poachers stop or they will be killed off to the last man, both solutions are acceptable.

  11. I think you fail to see that elephants, rhinos, and other species could be raised outside of Africa, for example Australia and the US, which ought to reduce their exposure to poachers considerably. Further, depending on type of product demand, animals need not be killed for horns and tusks. These could be harvested from live animals and sold. Yemen is the chief destination for whole rhino horn, which requires killing the animal, to be used for knife handles, but that country is in civil war, so I reckon demand for luxuries has dried up. As for big game hunting, the most desired animals are the mature ones. Zoos, circuses, and refuges could transfer/sell their advanced-aged animals to private hunting companies. In the African wild, only one in eight males lions live to adulthood, so these young ones could be captured and sent to reserves at home or abroad to be raised until an advanced age.

    There is precedent. Years ago the North American bison was critically endangered, yet today they’re raised for their beef and hides. Bison hunts in the US and Canada are priced from $4,500 to $10,000.

    Regulation could be imposed requiring some payment to the wildlife conservatories of Africa for their maintenance and expansion, and perhaps they ought to bring in Africans to study veterinary science and wildlife management.

    With growing species populations in the US and Australia, preserving genetic diversity and transfers of this material could be done as well.

    I think the main hang up is that people get overly emotional about certain animals, and when you add “hunting by the rich man” to it, they lose their shit. Who can forget the uproar over Cecil the lion? An aged male past his prime - male lions in the wild average 12 years of life due to constant fighting - Cecil was 13 when he was shot.

    Will this entirely stop poaching in Africa? No. Unless China and few other countries genuinely enforce prohibition of unlawfully harvested animals, it’ll be impossible. Giving Chinese consumers a legal alternative is the only way to preserve these endangered species until the African countries develop the capability, if ever, to manage and protect, which requires their economic development to entice people away from poaching.

    An altogether different alternative is introduce poisoned rhino horn to the oriental medical systems. Seeing how scared Chinese became of counterfeit powered formula, a few deaths due to tainted rhino horn may kill demand.

  12. At Farris: no worries and my pleasure.

  13. I am inclined to believe that Africa cannot be saved by the White Man.

    Please forgive the sarcastic tone, but it seems to me that most of the people who care anything at all about poaching in Africa are people who have been raised in Europe and the Anglosphere. (Predominantly white even today.) Certainly, there’s little interest in preserving African animals among the majority of Asians and non-English speaking people in the Western Hemisphere.

    Political and economic corruption, a still staggering rate of population increase and a stubborn, though perfectly understandable, resistance to interference from people outside of Africa will ensure that little changes in African wildlife management but the window dressing put out to keep the foreign aid money flowing in.

    Elephants and rhinos may disappear entirely from the face of Africa in this century. Or they may not. This is entirely up to the people of Africa.

    Not the White Man. It’s beyond our ability to “save” Africa and its animals.

    Personally, I think elephants and rhinos have their best chance at long term survival if the White Man transfers as many as possible to the US, Canada and Australia before they are gone.

  14. @MorganFoster came closest to what I see as the real point: The issue is that the wealthy west want areas like the African savannah preserved as pastoral scenic examples, by the natives, without allowing the natives the opportunity for self-advancement through the use of local resources.

    It sounds nice and cuddly, but rhinos aren’t part of our children’s heritage any more than cows are. If cows aren’t held in communal trust for the future, then rhinos aren’t. If the locals want to exterminate rhinos, it’s their resource. Either set up a preserve of rhinos owned by Western nations, as many here have suggested, or make it non-desirable. Many posters have talked about the demand; none are talking about raising the local economy to a higher level such that posing is stupidly high-risk. If the local villagers are prosperous, will the intelligent and dangerous still hunt rhino? The stupid will, but they’re easier to catch.

    Also interesting that the author neatly avoided pointing the finger at the mystical Asian medical beliefs while still alluding to them. Education in such countries would also hurt the market, also not being discussed. So it’s OK to meddle in African lives, but not provide better education to Asian?

    EDIT: Or, if it’s really that important, tell the rangers to shoot to kill. Disallow any villagers living within 100 miles of the park. Treat anyone without a pass or government authorization to be there as a poacher and shoot on sight if they can’t produce documentation.

    See, that would work. So it’s not that people want this problem solved, but that they want it solved within parameters they’re refusing to overtly articulate.

    If this part of South Africa became prosperous and Westernized, then it wouldn’t preserve that local charm- because these villagers only exist for the local charm of tourists.

    I’m sorry, but that attitude really irritates, and it’s not buried super deep in some people.

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