Since those lean times, Operation Stronghold has been shored up by donations from abroad. Among them is a $350,000 grant from an American agency, U.S.AID, to buy boat engines and Land-Rovers and to build houses for the scouts. Also, a U.S.-based conservation group called SAVE kicked in $100,000 worth of radio equipment, a tractor-trailer, camping gear and the loan of a light aircraft. Through bake sales. T-shirt sales and fund-raising drives, the local Save the Rhino Campaign has collected another $250,000 in cash and equipment for the cause. Still, Operation Stronghold needs more of just about everything. What Tatham wants most of all is a full-time helicopter to ferry reinforcements into the bush. Until he gets one, all he can do is watch the sky and wait.
From a distance, muffled by dew-dampened foliage of jesse bush, the burst of fire from an AK-47 assault rifle sounds oddly harmless, like corn popping over a flame. It is 6:45 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 14, and the leader of Papa One-Two, radio slang for Patrol 12, a five-man antipoaching team patrolling Mana Pools, immediately radios base camp to report the gunfire and to tell other patrols exactly where near the Mbera River they are located.
Papa One-Two races in the direction of the gunfire and finds three sets of human footprints on the forest floor. Suddenly to the south a single shot rings out. This one is much closer than the automatic-weapons fire and the patrol members rush toward the sound. They spot a black male in cutoff khaki pants carrying a folding-stock AK-47. All five of them—four policemen and a parks scout—open fire at 300 yards. They miss the poacher. He scrambles into the undergrowth and vanishes. By midday three additional parks patrols are scouring the bush for the poachers' spoor, while four other groups take up positions at likely crossings along the Zambezi.
All of this military maneuvering holds an eerie resonance of déjà vu for the National Parks personnel who fought in the Rhodesian war—a bloody power struggle between the white-minority government and the disenfranchised blacks that lasted from the late 1960s until 1979. The Zambezi Valley was a major battleground then, with black guerrillas slipping across the river from their sanctuary in Zambia, mining the roads and ambushing the parks rangers and army troops defending the border. The white Rhodesians tracked the guerrillas down in the same way the poachers are now being hunted.
It's a strange twist of fate that men who would have shot each other on sight less than 10 years ago should now find themselves battling side by side to save the rhino. Indeed, some former black guerrillas have been specially recruited for the operation, which is largely directed by white parks officers. One senior ranger was astonished to learn around a campfire one night that one of his scouts had, during the Rhodesian war, attacked a barracks where the ranger had been stationed—while he was in it.
Later, wardens Cousins and Edwards meet back at headquarters to mull over their next move. They figure the poaching gang entered the park a day earlier, after the rains tailed off. Intelligence gleaned from captured poachers and sympathetic sources in Zambia has informed them that the gangs have gotten smaller and more sophisticated. They are usually made up of one hunter and three or four porters, sent out on four-or five-day sorties for a fixed rate of pay. A hunter earns about 4,000 Zambian kwacha, which is about $445—a fortune in Zambia—with a bonus for every rhino he kills. Porters might make 400 kwacha for the trip, an enormous sum for men who are rarely employed at all.
As the sun drops behind a red wash of cirrus clouds in the western sky, Edwards and Cousins drive their Land-Rover to a darkening airstrip. No sign of the poachers has been found during the day, and Tatham, who had been off culling elephants, returns and wants to fly around the area to see if he can pick up the glow of their campfire. The little Maule takes off to the east, with a huge orange full moon breaking. An elephant snorts beyond the clearing, and a flock of crested guinea fowl clamors in alarm as Tatham flies over. He circles the moonlit folds of the valley, spotting a flicker of light then losing it under the shroud of branches. At last he banks slowly homeward.
Driving back to base camp. Cousins says to Edwards, "I reckon that hunter decoyed our guys and got them chasing in the wrong direction. Then he probably doglegged back to his porters to carry on hunting."
Edwards chuckled. "If he did, hopefully he'll run right into Ian. Then he'll get a third eye for sure."
Ian Gibson is a 26-year-old senior ranger with a scruffy beard and short brown hair he covers with a floppy green bush hat that matches his faded fatigues. A wad of cotton protrudes from his left ear, which he whacks with his fist as he walks. Just now, when he should be tuned in to the sounds of the bush, he can't hear properly because some revolting mite burrowed into his ear and the bite has gone septic. He should probably be seeing a doctor instead of humping an assault rifle down elephant trails looking to shoot somebody.