The full-chested roars of male lions echo through the trees, pumping adrenaline into our veins as we watch from an open-air Jeep. We are close enough to the hulking predators to see the individual whiskers on their snouts and the piercing amber of their eyes.
Our safari guide, Danielle Kueck, warns us not to make any sudden movements. “They haven’t had breakfast yet,” she says with the hint of a smile.
As the sun rises in the morning sky, we enter Sabi Sand, a private game reserve adjoining South Africa’s famed Kruger National Park, in search of the animal I most want to see—the endangered rhinoceros.
“Ah, we found them,” Danielle whispers. “Over there, half hidden in the brush.” A mere 50 feet away stands a massive two-horned black rhino—a member of one of two species of rhino native to Africa—sheltering her calf.
My husband and I have traveled here hoping to photograph Africa’s “Big Five”—lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, and rhino. Sadly the “Big Five” may soon become the “Big Four”; wildlife experts warn the animals could be erased from the continent by 2020 if the rhino-poaching crisis can’t be reversed.
At sunset, while other guests are freshening up for a white-tablecloth dinner under the stars at Singita Sabi Sand, one of several private lodges and camps that operate within the reserve, we drive deep into the bush to find out why canines may be the secret weapon when it comes to curbing illegal poaching.
We hear the frenzied barking before we see the camouflaged men. From their yelps, it’s clear the dogs are eager to please, eager to run, eager to work. That’s good; they have a big job to do.
It is estimated that there are fewer than 26,000 rhinos left in Africa, and most of them are clustered at the bottom of the continent, in South Africa. The bad news: Record numbers of rhinos have been killed there in the past few years (a 270 percent year-over-year increase was reported from 2014 to 2015).
The number of black rhinos alone has plummeted 98 percent since 1960 and the white rhino, though far greater in number across Africa, isn’t faring much better, owing to a surging black-market demand for rhinoceros horns.
The long-eared Weimaraners we’ve just encountered are part of one of the elite anti-poaching units patrolling Sabi Sand in an effort to turn those numbers around.
For Conraad de Rosner, director of K9 Conservation, which assists lodges within the reserve and Kruger National Park with anti-poaching efforts, it’s all about psychology.
“Most Africans have been bitten by a dog or know someone who has,” he tells us. “[Poachers] figure the odds of getting hit by a bullet in the dark are, maybe, one in ten, but the chances of getting attacked by a dog are 100 percent.” It’s easy to see why word has spread quickly among would-be poachers, and been successful at keeping many of them at bay.
Why Weimaraners? Rosner tells us they are his dog of choice for tracking at night, when poachers typically operate, because of their intelligence, stamina, and keen sense of smell. “They were originally bred in Germany to hunt large game, such as bear, boar, and deer,” he continues as he pats one of his dogs, Manzi, through the window of his Jeep.
Under the radar
Though the callous trophy killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe sent shockwaves around the world in the summer of 2015, the escalating slaughter of rhinos, and the very real possibility of their extinction, remains below the radar for many travelers who come to Africa to see wildlife.
Rhino-horn trafficking is estimated to be a $20-billion-a-year industry, with a single horn fetching up to $60,000 on a black market fueled by demand from Asia—increasingly from Vietnam, where a growing elite considers them a status symbol.
Traditional Chinese medicine holds up the rhino horn as a cure for ailments as diverse as rheumatism, hangovers, and cancer.
In fact, rhino horns are not horns at all, but composed of keratin, the principal component in animal hooves and human hair and fingernails, rendering them about as effective at curing cancer as biting one’s nails.
Despite this fact, ounce for ounce, the cost of powders made from rhino horns is on par with gold and cocaine.
Once a tentative conservation success story, Africa’s rhinos are currently under such aggressive attack that conservation filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert have established Rhinos Without Borders to raise funds to physically airlift the massive mammals to the wilds of Botswana, where they stand a much greater chance of survival.
Poachers are using high-caliber weapons—including assault rifles such as AK-47s—to target rhinos, some from helicopters. Still others use darts to immobilize the rhinos, then strip them of their horns with a chainsaw and leave them to die.
Though the thick-skinned animals have a reputation for being tough, they are very easily poached; rhinos visit water holes daily, making for easy marks while they drink.
The organized crime syndicates involved in rhino poaching, most of which are rooted in Asia, are often embroiled in other illegal activities, such as human trafficking, diamond and drug smuggling, and trade in illegal wildlife products, such as ivory.
Though the skills of a single dog named K9 Killer have led to the arrest of 115 poachers in Kruger over the past four years, tracking poachers in the national park has been a challenge due to its size—roughly half that of Switzerland. Poachers enter the park unmolested from Kruger’s long, eastern border with Mozambique, which lacks fencing.
In response to the surge in poaching, private lodges and landowners surrounding and within Kruger National Park have invested significant funds—often directly derived from tourist dollars—to protect the wildlife that draws visitors to their properties in the first place. It’s a win-win proposition.
“If we didn’t have tourism [in Sabi Sands, Africa’s] rhinos would be gone already,” says Rodney Wyndham, managing director of Sabi Sabi, a luxury ecolodge associated with National Geographic that operates in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. “There’s no money to save them in the huge national parks.”
Wyndham reports that Sabi Sabi hasn’t had a single poaching kill on its property since the lodge beefed up its anti-poaching program 18 months ago. “The problem won’t go away,” he says. “The private sector has to get involved as much as possible.”
The future of rhinos in Africa
The drastic spike in illegally killed rhinos over the past decade represents an unprecedented conservation crisis for South Africa. Approximately 5,000 rhinos have been killed in the country since 2007—nearly a fifth of the continent-wide population.
In an op-ed published in the Financial Times last October, Prince William opened with this: “I cannot imagine what it would feel like if the last elephant or rhinoceros in the wild died—and I then had to explain to my children how we let it happen.”
After seeing these magnificent creatures in the savannas of South Africa, I cannot begin to imagine, either.
Will we have to explain the loss of wild rhinos in Africa to future generations? With help from anti-poaching canine units, continued investment in conservation efforts by companies that profit from wildlife tourism, and public education campaigns aimed at reducing demand for rhino horns, these endangered animals can be spared from extinction.
If you go…
Do your part to protect rhinos by refraining from posting photos of them on social media, as they can help potential poachers home in on the animals. If you do share pictures from your safari, make sure to turn off the geotagging function before posting them to Facebook and other sites.