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But when there's a scene on. every available ranger has to go. And Gibson admits that he loves it out here in the sweltering flatlands, propelled by the adrenaline rush of the manhunt.
Gibson and his scouts are finishing their dinner of dried fish, tinned meat and sadza, a thick maize porridge, when they hear the hum of Tatham's plane passing overhead. After it is gone, Gibson rolls out his sleeping bag in a small clearing. He lies awake as long as he can, listening for the sound of gunfire, then he drops into deep sleep.
Suddenly, he bolts awake. There is a crash in the bushes. His scouts leap out of their sleeping bags, rifles ready at their shoulders. They find themselves facing an astounded bull elephant who trumpets a halfhearted warning and then charges off into the silent forest. Everyone goes back to bed.
By the next day it has dawned on the wardens that Papa One-Two had been lost when it heard the gunfire. Confused by the thick bush that blocks the telling angle of the sun, the patrol leader had radioed the wrong coordinates of his position when his men fired at the poacher. Now the other patrols are going to have to be picked up and pointed in the right direction.
Cousins wrestles a Land-Rover over a brutal sand river crossing. Frustration is beginning to bite into his sunny disposition. "Operation Stronghold is starting to feel like Operation Weak Grasp," he says.
Suddenly, just ahead, a massive black rhino blasts out of the bushes. Cousins slams on the brakes. The behemoth hurtles across the road and disappears into the forest. The warden is smiling now. This, after all, is what the game is all about.
No matter how many rhinos you see, each one is a marvel—startling in its weirdness. The shape is an outrage to the laws of symmetry: the low-slung loaf of a head with its impossible, jutting horns, the massive neck, shoulders and gut, all perched on stumpy legs and daintily tapered hocks. The rhino is born old, carrying 60 million years of genetic memory in its simple brain. It is a creature of routine, wandering in circles through its home range, drifting with unlikely grace from shrub to shrub, lifting huge hooked lips to pluck a tiny leaf and savor it. As it chews, it moves like a sleepwalker from another age. Its tiny, ancient eyes give away nothing.
But it can be a dangerous animal. The rhino has weak eyesight and an unnerving ask-questions-later policy of charging any intruders who happen to enter its turf. Still, for all its ferocious ways, the rhino is an easy animal to kill. A gut-shot elephant can run a mile before it collapses and a wounded buffalo will hide in ambush to stomp its tormentor.
But a single shot in the lungs can drop a rhino in its tracks. It will die without a fight. Then it's only a 10-minute job for the poacher to hack off the loosely attached horns and set off to kill his next rhino.
If a poacher has trouble finding a rhino, he needs only to arrange for the rhino to find him. It is simple. The sound of a cow calling her calf is a whining-puppy noise easily imitated by humans. It will attract any rhino in earshot. Sometimes inquisitive rhinos will hound a campsite, attracted by the fire and strange cooking smells.