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Saving rhinos is a time-consuming business that eats up Tatham's every waking moment. Along with coordinating Operation Stronghold, Tatham has become the main spokesman for the campaign. He doesn't waste words in that role: "Desperate situations require desperate measures," he says. "We knew we had to take these guys on and fight fire with fire. Our objective is to save animals, it's not to kill people. But we cannot afford the possible loss of life among our men by letting them walk into gangs of armed criminals without having the option of shooting first."
He is tough and direct, and he sounds dead certain of his argument. "It's a controversial issue, killing a man to save an animal," he says. "But what happens in New York City when a man tries to rob a bank? Do you just let him go? Here we're fighting organized crime dealing in a commodity that is a very special natural resource."
Fifteen years ago there were some 65,000 black rhinos scattered through the rough bush country of east, central and southern Africa. Since then, despite the millions of dollars that conservation groups have poured into their protection, more than 90% of the rhinos have been killed by poachers.
In some countries, such as Uganda, Chad and the Sudan, the rhino is virtually extinct. Only 400 out of some 20,000 rhinos have escaped the slaughter in Kenya. Most of these survivors are destined to live out their lives behind electric fences—glorified zoo animals with round-the-clock guards to protect them.
Nearly half of Africa's remaining black rhinos, including the precious herd of 600 in the Zambezi Valley, live in the wilderness reserves of Zimbabwe, a Montana-sized nation in southern Africa once known to the world as Rhodesia. Zimbabwe is one of the relatively prosperous African countries. It managed to survive the bloody civil war that resulted in black independence in 1980. Its roads and factories remained intact, and its farmlands are still abundantly productive.
But north, across the Zambezi River, lies the sprawling, destitute nation of Zambia. There, the fall in the price of copper and disastrous economic conditions have brought the country close to bankruptcy. The currency is almost worthless. During the past 10 years, Tatham and his colleagues in Zimbabwe have watched with growing alarm as, one by one, the wildlife sanctuaries of Zambia were decimated in a frenzy of poaching. Almost the entire population of roughly 4,000 black rhinos and perhaps 50,000 elephants had been slaughtered just across the border from the Zambezi wilderness areas.
By 1984, with their own herds dead or depleted, Zambian poachers had set their sights on the territory to the south, and more than 200 rhinos have been killed in the Zambezi Valley since then. Poachers crossed the river in gangs of up to 16. Many were armed with Kalashnikovs, or AK-47s, and powerful .375 hunting rifles, which can drop an elephant with one shot.
In Zimbabwe, parks rangers, like other law officers, have always had the legal right to use firearms to make an arrest. But parks officials hesitated to use their authority without political backing. "We wanted assurance from the highest level of government that we could use extreme force, not just to effect an arrest but to literally take these guys on," says Tatham.
In 1985, prime minister Robert Mugabe's office quietly granted its approval, and Zimbabwean government patrols were given authority to shoot poachers on sight. Reinforcements were sent in from the national police department. (The official count is now 21 poachers dead and 20 captured.)
Later that year, prime minister Mugabe made a powerful statement defending Operation Stronghold. "Let me warn these elements [poachers]," he said, "that my government...will take even sterner measures than in the past to bring them to book. The forces of law and order, including our Department of Parks and Wild Life Management, have definite instructions to apprehend these elements or, if the situation warrants it, to account for them in other ways.... Let those who may be inclined to think of Zimbabwe as their El Dorado for rhino horn...take note that they run a very high risk indeed."