"During the day, rhinos are stupid," says Gibson. "But at night they're pathetic. They won't leave you alone, even if you throw sticks to try to drive them off."
This sort of behavior stirs a paternal instinct in some people, an urge to protect the helpless. One man thus smitten by the innocence of these ugly beasts is Lovemore Mungwashu, 28, by all accounts one of the best and toughest rangers in the valley.
"Rhinos are lovely creatures, like little children," says Mungwashu. "When a rhino charges, it is like a child throwing down a cup in anger."
Last October, Mungwashu and his sergeant shot and killed two members of the notorious Momborera Gang, a nine-man killing team that once slaughtered 22 rhinos in a month.
In the field, with a full beard and dusty fatigues, laden with arms and ammo, Mungwashu looks from a distance like a vision from Apocalypse Now. But closer inspection of his eyes reveals the deep, steady gaze of an unabashed animal lover—a man who will often sit motionless for hours watching dappled bush-bucks graze.
On Tuesday morning, after two luckless days of poacher hunting along the Chiruwe River, Mungwashu and his patrol are called back to Mana Pools base camp by Cousins and Edwards, to wait for the next development. Revived by a meal and a good cup of pongo juice, Mungwashu ponders the ethics of shooting poachers on sight. "I feel bad about killing people," he says. "But it's got to the point now where it's necessary. It's the only language the poachers understand."
Before the shoot-to-kill policy went into effect, catching poachers was like trying to put greased warthogs in leg irons. "It was so frustrating," Mungwashu recalls. "Once, back in 1984, we approached a group of poachers while they were eating lunch. We shouted at them, 'You're under arrest!' but they just ran off with everything they had. My men were asking why we bothered to send them out on patrols if all we could do about poachers was shout."
Mungwashu says Operation Stronghold has popular support in Zimbabwe. "A lot of people are aware we have to save these rhinos at all costs," he says. "It's been explained to them that having a viable rhino population means tourists will be coming with foreign currency to see them. They know this country needs foreign exchange."
In the end, even if the poachers are annihilated and the smuggling network is shut down, the survival of the rhino will have to depend on the cooperation and support of the people who live here. With populations in Africa mushrooming, there is the inevitable fierce pressure to settle the regions that had always been the domain of wild animals. Zimbabwe has a wildlife management policy unique in black Africa: Make the animals earn their survival by putting money in the pockets of those who would otherwise kill them or drive them away.
For now, the black rhino is too rare to earn its keep as anything other than a tourist attraction. But other, more prolific species such as elephants, lions, buffalo and antelope are being "utilized" as game hunters' prey by both the government and private landowners. Ranchers are encouraged to allow limited, high-priced hunting on their land. They are also encouraged to raise antelope instead of livestock for meat as a way to insure the survival of game animals outside protected areas.