In between the adrenaline highs of a re-emerging Vic Falls, Adelle Horler meets an ethical conundrum: a conservationist advocating farming rhinos for their horns
Ian du Preez, a large and rugged ranger who’s spent years under the harsh Zimbabwean sun, is clucking like a proud father.
“There’s Bambi and her little one. She’s still suckling, only she’s getting a bit big now, she has to do it lying down. Ah, that’s lovely, man,” he says with clear devotion.
Bambi, however, is not a sleek deer with long eyelashes. She’s a hulking great, armour-plated black rhino, stoically chewing on some feed while her one-year-old calf, so far unnamed, jabs her in the belly with its young horn.
In a country more famous for bad news, Bambi and her bambino are a Zimbabwean success story. With fewer than 500 black rhino left in the country, Bambi is part of a breeding nucleus in the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve, which one day may be able help restock the national parks.
“Black rhino generally aren’t successful breeders in captivity,” says Du Preez, the reserve’s GM. “The cows don’t look after their babies well and often they die.”
But Bambi and Buster, a second adult female, both calved within a day of each other and they’re devoted mothers to their one-year-olds. They’re also both pregnant again.
“Shungu (the bull) knows what he’s doing,” Du Preez laughs. “But with both of them pregnant, he’s running around the reserve looking for more females. Only no one’s told him there aren’t any.”
As we drive a little further around the reserve, we bump into Buster with her huge baby. Du Preez’s voice goes all soft and I’m battling to reconcile it with his rough bush-man demeanour.
But there’s a slow-burning anger underneath it all. “I’ve devoted my adult life to saving rhino, and it’s just not working. When I was a kid running around in the Zambezi Valley we used to hate the rhinos – they’d chase us and we’d be up a tree half the time. Now there’s a kind of silence; they’re just not there,” he says.
Poaching, of course, is the problem. Gangs of poachers get good money for horns that are sold in the East for traditional medicine and in Yemen to make handles for ornamental daggers. Poachers kill or wound the rhinos and brutally hack off their horns.
But, says Du Preez, if you dehorn a rhino, its horn grows back within about three years. “The horn is simply densely matted keratin, like our hair or nails. It sits on a pedestal of bone, but it’s not connected to the skull. You can actually move a rhino’s horn from side to side.”
So why kill a rhino for just one horn, when you could get several from one rhino over its lifetime, he argues.
“I hate the fact that in a week’s time I’m going to dehorn these two young babies. But if anything happens to them, I want to know that I did everything I could think of to protect them.
“Of course dehorning doesn’t necessarily protect them. Poachers still kill rhinos that don’t have horns.” It makes sense; the poachers may have spent two days tracking the animal, risking capture and their lives, only to find no horn. They’ll kill it to make sure they don’t waste time tracking that same rhino again.
Which is when Du Preez becomes controversial.
“We keep taking the same head-on approach, hunting poachers and blaming the markets that buy the rhino horns. But it’s not working here or in South Africa. You can’t tell the East to stop wanting rhino horn, in the same way people won’t stop cutting down forests for paper to print the Bible. So why not try something different? Rather than fight the end user, let’s go to the source.
“There are more rhino horns stored in warehouses all over Southern Africa than there are rhinos. Let’s dehorn the rhinos and control the sale of stocks.”
There’s a logic. If rhino horns are cheaper and readily available, poachers lose all incentive.
“At the moment, rhinos just cost money. They’re not as desirable as, say, lion or elephant for tourist safaris, and you have to spend so much on anti-poaching units to protect them.
“And in Africa, when an animal doesn’t pay its way, it goes.
“Shungu, the bull, was dehorned five years ago and now his horn is huge again. He could provide 20kg of horn over his lifetime, but you’re not going to get that if you kill him.
“People think this is a crazy idea, but then bring me a better solution,” says this passionate man. “Because after 20 years of fighting this rhino war, I’ll try anything.”
WALKING WITH LIONS
Black rhinos are notorious for being grumpier and more unpredictable than their white rhino cousins, so it’s not surprising that in Vic Falls, Utopia for adrenaline junkies, tracking Bambi, Buster, the new rhino babes and Shungu the bull is one of the white-knuckle activities on offer.
Black rhino-tracking from a vehicle is part of the Big Five product offered by Shearwater Adventures in the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve.
It’s a cunning piece of marketing: while there is a small chance you could see the Big Five, this big five refers to five activities.
In addition to the rhinos, you can “walk with lions” – well, kind of, as anyone who’s ever watched full-bellied lions on a hot afternoon will know. Walk and flop with lions is a little more accurate. The stars of this show are two females and a male, aged from 12 to 15 months – but don’t think they’re cubs. While they still have some youthful spots, their paws are like saucers and they all have impressive fangs, which you see a lot of in their luxurious yawns. Obligingly, while they’re taking one of their many breaks, you can kneel down alongside and tickle them behind the ear.
These big cats are as playful as (lazy) kittens, swiping at bits of meat on the end of a stick, but make a too-fast move or remain on the ground when they stand up and you’ll be in no doubt that these are potentially lethal predators.
But then again, they’ll lie down like a well-trained dog when their handlers give the down command. Try getting a domestic cat to do that.
We walked for 30 minutes with these sleek felines, and I kept finding myself taking a reality check as I ran my hand down a lion’s back as it loped past, nudging my legs out of the way.
The other three of the big five are a half-hour ride on the back of an elephant, a game drive through the reserve, and a “carnivore’s kitchen” – the local croc farm supplies carcasses, which are left out to attract marabou storks and other scavenging big birds.
Also on the reserve is the Stanley and Livingstone Hotel which has the feel of a Victorian hunting lodge, though there’s not a single stuffed head on the wall, happily.
It’s filled with memorabilia of the two explorers, covers of The Illustrated London News, Livingstone’s sketches of the falls, and even has a tartan carpet in the bar.