When it became clear that the Zimbabwean rangers were openly killing Zambian men to save the lives of rhinos, there was a furious reaction across the border. Angry speeches were made in Zambia's parliament. Politicians condemned the "murder" of Zambian nationals and called for diplomatic retaliation. Things quieted down quickly, however, when Zambia's president, Kenneth Kaunda, flatly refused to condemn Operation Stronghold. The poachers' only motive is money—big money. Rhino horn is black gold in this impoverished continent. Not actually horn, but keratin, a protein found in hair, it is worth about $300 per pound wholesale to the syndicate that smuggles it to the Middle East and Eastern Asia. The biggest market for African rhino horn is the tiny Arab state of North Yemen, where it is the proudest mark of manhood to possess a decorative dagger with a carved rhino-horn handle. Since the oil boom there of the 1970s, even an ordinary Yemeni is able to afford a coveted djambia, though it costs from $500 to $12,000.
In the Far East, rhino horn is ground into traditional medicines that supposedly cure headaches and heart trouble and cleanse the pancreas and liver; in pharmacies there, African rhino horn retails for $4,500 per pound. (Horn from the rarer Asian species sells for $9,500 per pound). Despite persistent myths that rhino horn is an aphrodisiac, this application accounts for only 1% of the total world market.
Esmond Bradley Martin is a Kenya-based American conservationist who has become the leading expert on the rhino trade. Since 1978, he has traveled through Asia and the Middle East for the World Wildlife Fund, studying the market and lobbying for laws that would shut down the rhino-horn business. North Yemen banned the import of horn, though not its export, in 1982. By 1986 all trade in rhino horn was banned in the most important Far Eastern markets. But the problem is getting countries to enforce their laws.
According to Martin, most of Zimbabwe's horn is smuggled out of Zambia to the tiny central African nation of Burundi and then flown to the Middle East. "One trader in North Yemen deals in 70 percent of the rhino horn there," he says. "There arejust a handful of traders handling rhino horn in Zambia. The trader has the expertise. The poacher wouldn't know what to do with the horn. You're not going to knock out rhino poaching with more antipoaching units. You have to go after the middleman."
Tatham knows this, too. "Operation Stronghold is only one dimension of the war out here." he says. "We need to battle the syndicate, the African mafia. The man who trades in horn as a commodity should be dealt with even more ruthlessly than the man we are shooting in the field."
Yet, even as high-level meetings go on between Zimbabwean and Zambian authorities, the poachers keep coming. Each day a gang is in the country, another rhino dies. All Tatham and his men can do is try to make poachers think twice before they cross the border.
"The next few months will be crucial," says Tatham. "And we're going to make it as gruesome and frightening for them as possible."
As soon as the weather lifts, Tatham climbs into his red-and-white Maule single-engine airplane and takes off for the war zone. When he spots some suspicious fishing boats on an island on the Zambezi River, he swoops down like a kingfisher for a closer look. Poaching gangs often hire Zambian fishermen to ferry them across to Zimbabwe. Today there are no signs of poachers, just a few guilty-looking natives who dive into the water as the plane passes over.
Tatham heads the plane toward a dirt airstrip at Mana Pools National Park. Because of its central location along the 120-mile stretch of river that runs from Lake Kariba to the Mozambique border, Mana Pools serves as field headquarters for Operation Stronghold. Tatham is meeting today with Andy Cousins, 34, the lanky, bearded warden at Mana Pools, and Steve Edwards, 32, the warden of distant Matusadona National Park, here on temporary "call-up" to help coordinate Stronghold activity.
With the sun now burning holes in the clouds, the three men settle into chairs under a huge mahogany tree in front of Cousins's house overlooking the river. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the needs and strategies of the antipoaching operation. But before there is talk, there must be tea.