African Reserves

The hidden world of rhino poachers

Glass garages are popping up in small towns near the border of one of South Africa‘s biggest game reserves. Owners want you to be able to see their sports cars. Kruger National Park is home to an endangered and rare animal species, the rhinoceros, and people who poach them make a fortune from their horns, which can fetch around $70,000 a kilo. As a result, the communities surrounding the park are changing. Poaching money isn’t just about buying mansions and fast cars; it also raises the standard of living. That the illegal practice is happening is an open secret. In the park itself, a war rages between poachers and rangers trying to keep the animals alive.

Georgina Savage’s comprehensive and comprehensive podcast, The Invisible Hand, grants the listener a front-row seat in this conflict. Born in Johannesburg and then moved to Australia at the age of six (taking on the accent you’ll hear in the podcast’s narration), Savage was brought back to the country she grew up in. “The Kruger has always been rooted in my childhood experience; in my sense of belonging, or at least my country of origin,” she said over the phone. Seeing the poaching saga portrayed as a one-dimensional fight between good and evil, she traveled to the Kruger – where her cousin’s husband, Greg, is a ranger – to investigate the whole story.

For over nine hours, Savage tells a gripping tale of the horrific increase in rhino horn poaching. The majority of the world’s rhinos live in South Africa, and crime is now so rampant that the animals are facing extinction. The Rangers protect them with heavy weapons and many people on both sides have been killed. Largely embedded in the section of the park that borders Mozambique, Savage spends weeks chatting not just to rangers and academics, but also to two poachers themselves.

Going into the project, Savage tried to stay open-minded about casting heroes and villains while being well aware that poachers do horrible things to animals. One of the most touching sections of the podcast is when Savage is called to see a rhino that was killed for its horn. The death of a poached rhino is often slow, with the horn chopped off with an ax while the animal is still alive. The rhinoceros Savage was called to see that he happened to be pregnant. “It’s probably one of the most shocking and horrible things I’ve ever seen,” she said. “You are immediately struck by this deep grief and sense of loss due to the innocence of the animal.”

Alongside vets petting the dead mother rhino as though she were still alive, Savage watched as the baby was cut from its embryo sac and dropped to the ground. “It looked like a baby dinosaur that had just cracked an egg,” she says. She had been expecting for a while to see a dead rhino, but when it happened, it was hard for her to comprehend. Had he been born, the baby would almost have been old enough to survive.

Poachers target rhinos because of the astonishing market value of rhino horn. The horns are taken to the port or airport in South Africa and then smuggled to traffickers in places like China, the biggest market for the product. Savage says there is a growing market for rhino horn in the Middle East and the wealthy elite use it as a status symbol. In Vietnam, she says, an unsubstantiated rumor that rhino horn cures cancer appears to have accelerated the extinction of the rhino population.

Before talking to the poachers, Savage thought the crime was a simple act of desperation. She learned that many poachers were coming from the western side of the Kruger and went with her fixer Domingos to Sabie village in Maputo district. The only poacher willing to admit to being a poacher on tape was the same age as Savage. His wealth and the color of his skin meant that he always had worse prospects than Savage, who lived nearby when she was young.

Communities like Sabie were once ‘moneyless’, dependent on agriculture, but now extreme droughts threaten the industry. Poaching looks more and more attractive. And here, Savage encounters one of the most interesting conversations: poachers don’t necessarily poach just to survive; they poach to prosper. Seeing the stretched out lives of westerners and being promised riches for their dirty work, the men who poach don’t necessarily spend their earnings on grain for their families but on status symbols to rise out of the village.

It is a landscape in which fascinating moral judgments are made. Savage says that while white Westerners may feel like they deserve to thrive, eating expensive meat regardless of its providence, the rules seem to be different for those on the other side of the world: “Africans and the poor should be content with just surviving” is the subtext Savage detects in the dialogue. There is unease at the thought of poachers killing rhinos to enjoy a good life. When poachers are killed , Savage watches the cover. It’s celebratory. Black Africans, she notes, are portrayed as “barbarians and as non-humans.”

This is in no way to suggest that Savage condones poaching. But she understands, thanks in large part to months spent in the thick of the action, that the environment in which it takes place is more complicated than one would like to believe. One of the most interesting conversations on the podcast is one in which Greg, Savage’s cousin-in-law, thinks any comparison between rhinos killed for their horn and cows killed for their meat is ludicrous. His emotional response is telling: people are quick to excuse their own behavior and much slower to excuse that of others.

As the conflict sees both sides become more militarized, it is impossible, Savage says, to offer a solution that would simply involve poachers laying down their weapons. In order to end rhino poaching – an eventuality Savage desired – demand must be eradicated. Savage thinks breeding rhinos before releasing them back into the wild might be the only solution. More rhinos means less threat of extinction, of course, but also devaluation of the product itself. As the horn becomes less rare, it becomes less valuable.

A searing honesty runs through The Invisible Hand – an honesty that refuses to see poaching as a mere character flaw or a uniquely South African problem. The poaching crisis is inseparable from the Black Lives Matter and the devaluation of African lives; it is inseparable from the climate crisis; inseparable from the discussions on the Universal Basic Income; inseparable even from the impact of social media. Addressing his guests, Savage appreciates that there are no easy solutions. But at least by acknowledging what the problem is, an answer may be easier to find.