Showdown in Zimbabwe: In the Nation That Once Held Africa's Greatest Concentration of Black Rhinos, Private Citizens Struggle to Save Th Last of the Animals

By Rosenthal, Donna | International Wildlife, November-December 1996 | Go to article overview

Showdown in Zimbabwe: In the Nation That Once Held Africa's Greatest Concentration of Black Rhinos, Private Citizens Struggle to Save Th Last of the Animals


Rosenthal, Donna, International Wildlife


In the nation that once held Africa's greatest concentration of black rhinos, private citizens struggle to save the last of the animals

Sunrise has just touched this remote corner of southeastern Zimbabwe. Shouldering his rifle, Kenneth Manyangadze expertly searches for rhino spoor in the bush of the Save Valley Wildlife Conservancy. He spots a torn spider web. Then he picks up trampled mopane leaves and sniffs them. They're fresh.

Gingerly, he continues to pick his way through the bush. He kneels down and checks the parched soil, spots the three-toed hoof print of a black rhinoceros. He moves on, then stops suddenly and motions the two armed men behind him to crouch. Hidden in the tangled bush is a massive, armor- skinned rhino browsing on twigs. The men look relieved. They had feared that poachers had found this 2-ton female.

Suddenly, sensing the men's presence, the black rhino raises her head and snorts. She cautiously sniffs the dry air, peering through eyes that see poorly.

Without making a sound, the three men sidle downwind to avoid her keen sense of smell and hearing. Their guns are meant not for rhinos but for the ruthless poachers who have slaughtered more than 90 percent of her species. Manyangadze knows poachers. He knows they'll shoot anyone who gets in their way. In the past, they gunned down two of his antipoaching scouts right in front of him.

At 38, Manyangadze is scarred by the savagery of the rhino war. He's been ambushed by poachers, bitten by a crocodile and gored by rhinos. His one remaining eye has seen too many mutilated rhinos, their horns hacked off and their bullet-riddled carcasses left for jackals and vultures.

This quiet, solid man has been on the front lines of the rhino war since 1977, tracking poachers and trying to stop the slaughter of one of Africa's most endangered species. Some of his scouts call him Rhino Man. He works l2 hours a day, seven days a week guarding rhinos and supervising 150 antipoaching scouts. "We've been losing this war," says Manyangadze gravely. "This is the last minute before extinction."

Africa is home to two rhino species--the white rhino, a grasslands grazer, and the black rhino, a shrub browser. The white rhino is the larger of the two, weighing up to 2,200 kilograms (4,840 lbs.), half again the black's top weight. For many years, the white was the rarer species. In 1920, the southern subspecies numbered only 60 animals, but protection in South Africa has brought the southern white rhino to more than 7,000 animals in the wild. In 1960, the northern subspecies fell below 1,000 animals and by 1984 reached a low of 16. Today, the northern white rhino population hovers at about 30 animals.

The vagaries of politics and national borders have kept the black rhino from receiving the protection afforded the white species. About 100,000 black rhinos roamed the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa in 1960. Wildlife experts estimate that fewer than 2,500 are left today, all in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Tanzania, Cameron, Swaziland, Namibia and Kenya. Recently, two black rhinos were released in Malawi.

The poachers seek the animals' horns, which average about 50 centimeters (20 in.) long in adult black rhinos. The horns sell on illegal markets for up to $2,000 a kilogram ($900 a pound) according to experts at the Natal Parks Board.

For more than 2,000 years, powdered rhino horn has been used as a folk remedy in China to treat ailments ranging from high fevers to convulsions to failing vision. Horns also have been smuggled into North Yemen and used as handles for jambiyyas, costly curved daggers that symbolize masculine power. The dagger trade peaked during the late 1980s, when the Middle Eastern nation was overflowing with oil money, and drove much of the rhino slaughter that occurred then. But a drop

in oil profits and a crackdown on trade

by the North Yemeni government has reduced the market for rhino-horn daggers. …

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