The Dangerous Work of Relocating 5,000-Pound Rhinos

The race is on to save the species.Ride along with an armed convoy deep into the Okavango Delta

photo-“Game abundant, especially rhinoceros,” explorer Henry Morton Stanley noted in the 1870s. Today is different. This blindfolded calf awaits transport. (Jason Florio)

As the sun drifted down on the rolling hills of South Africa’s Free State province, Manie Van Niekerk wore a mournful look. The 52-year-old farmer and rancher, whose short hair is dark on top and gray on the sides, has a sturdy, solid frame formed by decades of physical work. He looks like a man who is hard to shake. And yet, talking about his 32 rhinoceroses, which at that moment he was preparing to give away, he was visibly moved. “You fall in love with the rhino,” he told me. “You get a lot of joy looking at them. They are dinosaurs. You can look at them and imagine the world before. People think they’re clumsy, but they’re actually very graceful. Like ballerinas.

He makes his living growing maize and potatoes on his family’s 57,000-acre farm, but he’d always loved game, and in 2009 acquired an additional 12,300 acres to collect African antelopes—sable, kudu and eland. In 2013, he added rhinos. By then, the poachers’ war on the rhino was in full fury, topping 1,000 animal deaths a year for the first time. The thieves were hunting mostly in Kruger National Park and the areas around South Africa’s eastern border with Mozambique. But as anti-poaching measures there improved and the price of rhino horn kept soaring, to tens of thousands of dollars a kilogram, the poachers began expanding into new territory.

They first hit Van Niekerk’s place, deep in the interior, in January 2017, came again the next month, and a third time that April. They killed six rhinos, left four with gunshot wounds and orphaned two calves. They would wait for a full moon, a pattern so set it has become known as a “poachers moon,” and Van Niekerk’s well-being waxed and waned with the lunar cycle. He’d lay awake, waiting for his phone to ring or feeling haunted by gruesome memories of an 18-year-old female that had been mutilated with an ax. Her 3-month-old calf burrowed into her side. “It was five or six hours before we could take him to a rehabilitation center,” Van Niekerk said. “He just lay next to his mommy, moaning, and didn’t move. It was pathetic.”

The poachers came again that June, but this time Van Niekerk’s security guards were there. A firefight broke out, and they wounded two poachers, who left a trail of blood for the guards to follow. The guards eventually captured five out of the seven poachers and handed them over to the police. But Van Niekerk had had enough.