Zimbabwe has often stood alone in Africa. As the white man's Rhodesia it was isolated from most of the world, much as South Africa is now. As a new, independent black nation, it is struggling to avoid the traps that have hobbled its neighbors. Officials in Zimbabwe's parks department have watched the rest of Africa, and have seen that traditional, more passive conservation measures have often failed to save endangered animals. So they have chosen their own path: They shoot to kill.
On Wednesday morning, a group of policemen camped near the mouth of the Rukomechi River notices two strange packages drifting down the main channel of the Zambezi. Their boat engine isn't working, but they manage to retrieve one of the parcels, which is wrapped in a waterproof blue tarp. In it they find shirts, trousers, shoes, a hunting knife, a box of Zambian Melilobrand matches, 69 rounds of AK-47 ammunition, a chunk of amethyst, two small elephant tusks and the horns of one rhino.
The poachers, it seems, had tried to escape across the river sometime in the night. Something had gone very wrong.
Later that same day a local sport fisherman discovers a bleeding, nearly naked Zambian man on the bank upstream. The fisherman drives the Zambian to a police station. The man tells the police that a crocodile had clamped its jaws onto his leg after his boat capsized. He said he had fought it off with his knife and swum to shore.
"That's gonna be one mad flatdog in the river with a knife stuck in him," says Gibson as he and Cousins race to the hospital to question the man further.
"Two animal stabbings in one month," says Cousins. "This is getting bloody ridiculous."
A police guard is stationed outside the ward when Cousins and Gibson arrive at the bedside of the skinny, sullen-eyed young man with bloody bandages on his left leg and right hand. He does not seem particularly pleased to be alive.
He insists he is a fisherman. But when questioned about his profession, he is unable to tell them the price of fish and he doesn't know the cost of a fishing net. It is his habit, he says, to poach fish in Zimbabwean waters in broad daylight wearing only his underwear.
He is placed under arrest. Later, after his wounds have healed, parks officials say he admits he was one of the rhino poachers. He is tried in Zimbabwe where he is sentenced to spend six years and two months in prison.
Fair weather holds through most of December, and the valley is quiet. Then, just after Christmas, heavy black clouds rumble in from the north. On Monday, Dec. 29, rangers patrolling the Chewore Safari Area, some 40 miles east of Mana Pools National Park, radio base camp to report that they have found the blood-spattered tracks of a black rhinoceros. They say there are human footprints along the animal's trail. Once more the game is on.