Saturday, November 11, 2006

Truth is as bad as fiction

Without giving too much away, my fourth book, due out in August 2007, starts with a Zimbabwean national parks anti-poaching patrol tracking a gang of Zambians who are, in turn, following a black rhino.
Sadly, the poachers kill the rhino before the rangers can catch them.
Last month Mrs Blog and I were out in the bush in Hwange National Park in the far north west of Zimbabwe, not far from where the rhino was killed in the manuscript, which, by the way, I finished earlier this year and is currently with the publishers for editing.  
We were taking part, as we do every year, in a game census in the park, organised by Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe.  This involves Mrs B and I being sent out to a remote water hole in the middle of the donga, armed withh a clipboard and bits of paper.  The go is that we sit by the billabong for 24 hours, from midday to midday over the last full moon of the dry season and count everything that comes for a drink.
By coincidence, we weren't alone - human wise, that is.  A three-man anti-poaching callsign was camped a  stone's throw away from us.  They were a great bunch of blokes - keen to come over and chat and talk about their work.  One of them was a medalla (an old guy) who we already knew quite well.  In composition, the patrol's ages and backgrounds (old guy who's been around for decades, keen new guy and middle-ranking boss-guy) was pretty close to the fictitious one I'd made up for the book, so I was pretty happy about that.  Their dress and equipment was just as I'd described, also, as I had seen patrols coming and going in the past.  They told us stories of contacts they'd had with poachers and bad guys they'd killed.
The morning after the long night spent counting elephants the patrol leader came over and told me they'd just heard that a black rhino had been killed by poachers.
Word got around the park pretty quickly.  A friend of ours had been out checking on the other counting teams when he heard gunshots, about 500 metres from Chingahobe Dam.  He'd spent enough time in the scrub during the Bush War to recognise the sound of an AK 47.  About half a magazine's worth of bullets, he reckoned.  He was also close enough to hear the chopping as the poachers hacked off the rhino's horn.
Our mate, wisely, sped over to the volunteers counting at Chingahobe and they all took off back to Robins Camp, the nearest national parks outpost, to report what had gone on.  Unarmed people don't mess with AK-47-toting poachers in real life.
Even though they had the exact location of the crime and were able to report it quick-smart, it was dark by then and the parks and police response was slow.
The three gunned-up members of the anti-poaching patrol with us were monitoring things on the radio and hoping that they might be 'uplifted' (relocated) to chase the gang.  However, in that part of the park the vehicle fleet amounted to one solitary national parks land rover.
Scouts were sent out and the police arrived the next day, but as far as I know the poachers got away.  There were offers of vehicles from some of the counters (we would have helped if required) but the parks people were not about to involve civilians (a pretty wise move, in hindsight, though there was some frustration in the hours after the crime occurred).
Our first choice for a waterhole to count at this year was Chingahobe Dam - where the  shooting took place.  Luckily for Mrs B and I the other team had specifically requested this location for the game count, so we were happy to default to our second choice.
Poaching happens in every national park in Africa.  The loss of a rhino anywhere is a setback for the fate of this endangered species, but are some positive aspects to this story.
Despite a decade of warfare and, more recently, disastrous political and economic mismanagement, Zimbabwe still has its own population of black and white rhino in selected national parks. In countries to its west and north (usually lauded as magnificent wildlife sanctuaries) such as Botswana, Zambia and Tanzania, natrually occurring black and white rhino have been wiped out by poaching in the national parks (though some are kept and bred in private reserves and eventually reintroduced into the parks).
In Hwange national park the rhino are genrally located in an area known as an IPZ, or intensive protection zone.  For geographic and habitiat reasons, the rhinos are generally happy to hang around this area, and although it isn't fenced (it is wilderness after all) it is heavily patrolled by rangers.  However, some rhinos (like the one in my forthcoming book) wander out of the IPZ in search of greener pastures, or other horny rhinos, or whatever presses rhino's buttons. 
The good news - sort of - is that the rhino that was killed was unknown to the park's rangers or volunteer researchers.  Somewhere, sometime, two rhinos had gotten together, had a baby, which had grown old enough to wander off on its own and do its own thing without anyone in the system knowing its whereabouts. Few other African countries have so many rhino that they can't identify every single one of them by name!
Zimbabwe's rhino have survived thanks to the men on foot, with their ageing rifles and torn remnants of uniforms who make up the anti-poching callsigns.  Economic mismanagement, government policy and the country's status as an international pariah mean that they do their job largely without vehicles, fuel, decent food and pay, or recognition.
Yet they are out there.  Now.  And they have the authority to shoot to kill on sight if they see someone with a weapon in a national park.
Sounds like a good start to a book, even if it is sad.

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