When Lawrence Munro finally arrived at the scene of the killing of a white rhino, maggots had beaten the section ranger of Ezemvelo Wildlife Park to the two-week-old carcass.
But the smell of putrefaction still lingered in the air. The grass was flattened 10m in every direction, evidence that the animal put up a heroic struggle long after the bullet pierced her head.
Munro removed a bullet from the skull. Ironically, every round he has removed from rhinos has originated from the 1980s when the townships were flooded with firearms.
There were blood splashes 2m high up a nearby jacaranda tree; when the rhino didn’t immediately collapse, they hacked at its Achilles tendons with a blunt panga blade to bring him down.
They then stood on its head and, using the head of an axe, chopped at the nose till the horn dislodged.
The soil soaked up the blood and the only traces Munro had to follow were footprints in the dust.
“We are at war, and losing,” said Munro. There were two poaching attempts in Munro’s south-west corner of Ezemvelo Wildlife Park last week. His team of 14 rangers cover the wilderness area of 96 000ha.
Once believed to be King Shaka Zulu’s personal hunting grounds, the wilderness area has been partitioned off as development-free, without roads, buildings or any man-made infrastructure.
Unfortunately, while the initiative comes with good intentions, it also makes the park difficult to patrol.
This has somewhat backfired on the conservationists, because “poachers are capitalising on this rapidly”, he says.
“Close to game reserves there are sparse habitats and it becomes lawless. It’s a breeding ground for criminals,” says Munro, who believes most of the poachers live in the nearby villages of Sangonyana and Debe, which border the park.
Rhinos have to drink twice a day, so poachers wait all day at watering holes. The only means of patrolling the lush green hills, dusty open plains and gaping gorges are on foot or horseback.
“Or now with the Bantam aircraft,” said Munro.
The first time Munro proposed buying the aircraft to help with the fight against rhino poaching was more than 13 years ago “at a rangers’ meeting with the old salts,” says Munro.
“They looked at me like I was mad. It’s funny – out of all those people who were in that room, I’m the only one still there,” he observed.
The rhino war started in January 2008, says Munro. He doesn’t know why.
“It was as if someone opened a tap on rhino poaching,” he said. “Every year we are losing more rhino – now one a day on average.”
Munro received an SMS as we talk: “Adult male rhino lost. Horns gone, carcass two weeks old.”
He takes a deep breath and exhales, “It’s like we are fighting a war with our hands tied behind our backs. Poachers are always one step ahead of us. We have guns; they have guns. But the Bantam will give us the edge,” he says.
With its forest and lime green kite-like fabric wings, the two-seater Bantam looks like a dragonfly from a distance. Made out of fabric, the wings can be stitched up with duct tape if poachers take pot shots at the plane in the sky.
The four-stroke engine produces a high-pitched whistle like a mosquito. It has bucket seats like those of go-karts, and the handle brake levers resemble those of a bicycle.
Although it’s cramped inside, occupants have a 200-degree view of their surroundings.
It feels like you’re driving a CitiGolf up a dirt road, as the plane shivers and bumps in even the slightest winds.
The propeller is high up, keeping clear of grass and loose stones so that the plane is able to land on bush strips.
It has extra-wide tyres, which are useful for bumpy and sandy surfaces.
The aircraft is from New Zealand, and was designed especially for sheep farming. This makes it slow (half the speed of a regular plane), and able to perform tiny turning circles, so that you never lose eye contact with the object you are monitoring.
From the ground it looks like a helicopter, because it’s able to almost hover in midair.
“In a crisis, timing is everything,” said Munro. From the time they hear a gunshot to the time of arrest at a checkpoint, Munro has calculated that the speed a rhino poacher moves through the bush is about eight to 10km/h.
Using the Bantam, which will be 100m from Munro’s outpost house, they will be able to spot suspicious vehicles on the boundary fence, set up roadblocks and corner suspects, by communicating with the rangers on the ground by radio.
The plane flies so low and slow they will be able to photograph a car’s number plate. Then they can e-mail the picture to the police and find out if the owner of the vehicle has any previous criminal offences.
They can also acquire the suspect’s home address and, after obtaining a warrant, carry out sting operations with the police in the hope of finding rhino horns.
There have been many interventions in the attempt to curb rhino poaching. From putting GPS trackers in the horns and coating the horns with poison to cutting the horns off and flooding the market with them so they lose their value, but none of these have proved practical or effective.
Munro hopes the Bantam will give them the edge they need over poachers.
“This is a military strategy. Aeroplanes were made in the 1800s and have been used in military operations ever since then. So why can’t we?” asked Munro.
However, he believes the South African rhino poaching scene is made up of advanced syndicates at the highest level, and he said he wouldn’t be surprised if they invested in a plane or helicopter as well.
Munro and fellow Hluhluwe ranger Dirk Swart spent three months training and are now qualified pilots.
But while they now enjoy a few extra golden captain’s stripes on their shoulders, both men are still hardy rifle-carrying bush rangers.
Munro was once waist-deep in a crocodile’s mouth when his then five-months pregnant wife saved him from death in a muddy river bed. Swart’s brother was killed by a leopard in the Kruger National Park years ago.
The purchase and maintenance of the Bantam plane was sponsored by WWF South Africa, Save The Rhino International and US Fish and Wildlife to the tune of R300 000.
Although it has not cost KZN Wildlife a cent, politics within the organisation delayed the acquisition of the plane.
Since 1998, Munro has been motivating the KZN Wildlife directors to put signatures behind the project and give him the go-ahead.
Finally, the board has realised the value of having aerial surveillance to help protect the rhinos.
KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife chief executive Bandile Mkhize said the costs associated with the proposal were beyond his organisation’s pockets.
He spoke of his admiration for the dedication and perseverance of Munro.
“It has been a long road, but his determination, persuasion and fund-raising qualities are excellent examples of the qualities I look for in my staff. He has been confronted by many hurdles, but he never gave up and always found solutions and good, logical explanations for pursuing this project.”
Munro doesn’t let bureaucracies stop his conservationist enthusiasm – he’s already talking about the need for another Bantam. - Sunday Tribune