THE SUN over the iMfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa burns until heatwaves radiate from the black dashboard. My French aunt is struggling in the backseat. She’s not used to this climate. My little five-year-old cousin, Lémoni, sniffs at the air pouring in through the open windows.
“It smells weird.”
“That’s the smell of dust,” I say.
Most of my family is packed into a convoy of two cars. The bush is luscious after the rainy season and a ribbon of road unfurls before us over the hills. The Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve is the oldest in Africa. From the top of a crest I get a fleeting sense of its immensity: 96,000 hectares in all. This land is home to the world’s largest population of white rhinos. In 1895, after being hunted excessively by European settlers, the white rhino was believed to be extinct. That’s when a small number of them were rediscovered in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi region and the game reserve was created.
The small web of roads that we’re driving along give us access to an infinitely small part of the national park. Only on foot can you truly explore this place. The swathes of land are intangible from the car window, but on seeing the blue hills stretch away into white, they suddenly become imaginable and I’m seized by a kind of childish hope.
In our collective imagination, we consider conservation areas to be pristine slices of nature in its most authentic form. In truth, places like Kruger National Park in South Africa or the Serengeti in Tanzania and Kenya are artificial wild spaces. Originally, man was part of these ecosystems. Cattle and wild animals grazed the same grass. The Maasai are trying to maintain this way of life as best they can, but by radically transforming the systems of governance in African countries and by altering the way local populations interact with the land, colonialism has thrown this old equilibrium between man and wild animal off balance.
So much so that, today, it’s impossible to imagine the survival of The Big Five (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros) without these artificial, protected spaces. Acacia tops spread out like umbrellas over the slopes and I find myself thinking that, artificial or not, there is still true magic here.
We stop at Sontuli, a designated picnic spot and one of the rare places where you’re authorised to leave your vehicle without being accompanied by a park ranger. To get to the look-out spot we follow a small path that crunches underfoot. The static of insects envelops us and there’s the smell of burnt wood in the air. Finally we arrive at a clearing on the edge of a cliff that overlooks a large and winding river — the Black iMfolozi. We set ourselves down quietly with a pair of binoculars. The river shines under the midday sun and eagles circle over the gorge.
This is a slow place. The peace is powerful and it’s in places like this one that I feel connected to something deep. As Dr. Ian Player, the ex-Senior Warden of the iMfolozi Game Reserve, puts it, “this is (our) original home.” It is in this kind of environment that man evolved. “We carry Africa within us. It’s part of our psyche.” For him, “wilderness is the original cathedral, the original temple, the original church of life.”
Dr. Ian Player began his career as a park ranger in 1952 at iMfolozi. It was during a trek on foot with his mentor and friend Magqubu Ntombela that he had a sort of spiritual experience: It was raining and as the two men stepped out of the thick underbrush they came upon a small group of rhinos. They were silent and calm. Player tells of how the animals were so close that he could see drops of rainwater sliding down their thick hides.
It was in that moment that he realised that his life would forever be linked to these prehistoric creatures.
As it happens, Player went on to dedicate his life to their protection. Thanks to Operation Rhino, he was able to transfer groups of white rhinos from iMfolozi to other reserves to begin the repopulation of southern Africa. He even sent some to the United States to ensure the survival of the species.
Growing up in Zimbabwe, southern Africa’s megafauna was part of my everyday life: at school we were taught about The Big Five; our sports teams were named after kudu, impala, and sable; our bills and coins had zebras, elephants, and giraffes on them, and we went to Manapools or Matusadona for holidays. I look over at my little cousin perched on one of the picnic benches. Her life is France. She only knows these animals through children’s books. For her, The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl is as farfetched as Postman Pat was for me. I like the thought of her being here and can’t wait to get to Mpila Camp.
We check in at a small thatched-roof office. While my aunt and uncle do the paperwork, I take a moment to look at the noticeboard. There’s a warning to remind visitors of the realities of poaching, with a gory picture of a rhino with half of its face cut off by a chainsaw. 93% of all rhinos in Africa are found in South Africa. The rhino-poaching death toll hit a record high in 2014 with over 1,000 rhinos being slaughtered. The figure has more than tripled in the last four years. People are calling it a war. And all for a horn that has no medicinal qualities whatsoever; studies in Switzerland, the UK, and China have all confirmed it.
When I ask Beki, one of the park rangers at iMfolozi, if the game reserve has been hit by poaching he answers with a dismissive, “Yes,” that lets me know he doesn’t want to talk about it. Maybe it’s because the news isn’t good, or maybe it’s because they’ve been instructed to treat anyone who asks pointed questions about their rhino population with suspicion.
Countless measures have been taken to try to stop rhino poaching in South Africa, some of which are top secret. There’s a poaching hotline you can call if you witness any suspicious activity; park rangers are being trained like soldiers because they’ll be coming face to face with assault weapons like AK47s and R1s; iMfolozi has started to use aerial surveillance and the government’s even talking about drones.
Nevertheless, rhinos continue to die. Major General Johan Jooste, the Commanding Officer of the SANParks anti-poaching team, explains that looking for poachers in the Kruger, a national park the size of Belgium, is like looking for a mosquito in the dark: “You find it when it stings you.” At the rate rhinos are dying in South Africa, their death rate will overtake their birth rate by 2016.
So, what’s to be done? Some, including Dr. Ian Player, have suggested a radical solution: the legalising of rhino hunting. It may sound strange coming from a man who has dedicated most of his life to the protection of this animal, but Player cites a historical example to back up his position: In 1970, rhinos were placed back on the hunting list. The money paid by foreign hunters to rhino breeding ranches allowed for a massive expansion of protected areas and gave people a reason to breed. The rhino population skyrocketed to over 15,000.
There exists today a stockpile of confiscated rhino horn worth over a billion rand (more than $81 million). What if that horn was made available to buyers in China and Vietnam? Would it meet the demand or only serve to stimulate it? Would legalising rhino hunting make it easier to control the process, all the while fueling breeding programs? Or is the outcome too unpredictable? After all, the world has changed a great deal since 1970.
My aunt and uncle have barely finished up the paperwork and already my little cousin has fallen under the charm of the Vervet monkeys that congregate outside the office and relieve themselves in the open-air safari jeeps parked under the trees.
My family spends the first half of the afternoon setting up our tented camp. We make sure to keep our food under lock and key to avoid an invasion of monkeys, but despite all our efforts, one of my cousins, who thought it was perfectly natural to bring a hookah to a national park, gets his strawberry shisha swiped.
It’s late afternoon when our convoy leaves Mpila camp. The roads from here on out aren’t tarred. We’re quiet with anticipation. The sun is low in the sky and its orange light catches in the tall grasses, casting long shadows across the dusty road. Someone spots something through the foliage. My uncle brakes and a rhino pushes through the acacia thorns several meters ahead. A turn of the key cuts the motor. The rhino takes little notice of us and crosses the road at its leisure. It stops in the middle to graze on the grass that grows along the roadside. Its horn curves like a sabre and its dinosaur-skin armour seems impenetrable. But then I spot its folds; thick wrinkles of skin around its neck and legs. I’m struck by the vulnerability and magnanimity of this powerful animal.
At that moment, a few steps behind its mother, a baby rhino emerges. It looks at us in a curious and mildly worried kind of way. Its mother continues on her way and presses into the bush. Her child follows and in an instant, as if they may have never even been there at all, the two giants disappear.