Meet the Australian Ex-Commando Saving Zimbabwe’s Rhinos

On the front line of Zimbabwe’s fight against poaching

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Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP

A rhino walks in its natural environment in the Bubi area about 500 kilometres south of Harare, Zimbabwe.

Treading on ragged sneakers and visibly woozy from the heat, 17 men have been walking in circles for seven hours, trying for a job few others want. As part of a three-day recruitment session, they will also endure hours of circuit training, lift tractor tires and sleep rough on a steep hill, spooked by the sounds of lions and whooping hyenas.

In a game reserve near Victoria Falls, in western Zimbabwe, Steven Dean, operations manager for the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), is scouting for new recruits to join his Green Army. He’s headed up the IAPF effort to train close to 200 rangers to protect Zimbabwe’s 600-700 remaining rhinos against illegal hunters. Two decades after a broad international effort saved the African rhinoceros from extinction, poachers are again killing the animal in record numbers. Zimbabwe, one of the rhino’s last roaming places, is the first country since the early 1990s where numbers have declined.

“A couple of more years like this, I hate to say it, but I think the rhinos will be done,” says Dean, a square-jawed Australian, dressed in khakis with a revolver in his belt. Before arriving in Zimbabwe in 2010, 32-year old Dean battled insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan for four years as a member of Australia’s Special Forces. Now, he uses the same tactics – camouflage, crime scene preservation, weapons handling and hand-to-hand combat – that he taught Iraqi paramilitary cadets, to prepare Zimbabweans for encounters with armed hunters.

“I am able to pass on a lot of my knowledge, and also the skills and techniques that we were taught, which are used on the modern battlefield,” Dean says.

He tailors his training specifically to combat poachers in Zimbabwe who are generally less sophisticated than cartels elsewhere in Africa. In South Africa, home to the majority of African rhinos, wildlife hunters use semiautomatic weapons, night vision goggles and helicopters to track down and de-horn rhinos, a timid but occasionally deadly aggressive animal with extremely poor eyesight. “Here, it is mostly just one guy with a gun and one guy with an axe,” Dean says, as he chops into the air with a flat hand. “It gets pretty ugly.”

Last year, approximately 1000 rhinos, or five percent of Africa’s total rhino population, were killed for their horns. While most of these killings took place in South Africa, rhinos are in grave danger in Zimbabwe because the country is particularly ill-equipped to protect them.

Ecological concerns are hardly a priority for the Zimbabwean government as the country emerges from financial collapse. Although the economy has rebounded in recent years, and last decade’s devastating hyperinflation has halted, Zimbabwe’s finances are still in shambles. Some reports say that the economy is running at a third of its capacity, and Zimbabwe relies on imports for even the most basic goods. To make matters worse, the country is in need of foreign capital right as investors are souring on emerging markets.

In  last July’s elections, President Robert Mugabe won with a large enough margin to dissolve the coalition government with the opposition party MDC-T, which had been in place since 2008. There now seems to be little appetite for the necessary reforms to sustain the relative stability secured by the unity government. While organizations like IAPF are funded by private donations, continuing strained relations between Zimbabwe and the West have further debilitated the country’s anti-poaching efforts.

“Because Zimbabwe is still under sanctions from the European Union and the United States, government aid money is not coming to beef up the wildlife sector,” says Tom Melliken, an anti-poaching expert with the World Wildlife Fund in the capital Harare. “And this has given poachers the opportunity to hunt in some of the best parks in this country.”

In an attempt to stifle critics, the government recently arrested poachers and levied harsh punishments. After poachers reportedly poisoned 300 elephants in Hwange National Park in October – the largest wildlife massacre in 25 years –authorities slapped severa culprits with sentences of up to 16 years. But harsh punishments, says Dean, are not as sustainable as international efforts and cooperation with local communities.

Protecting Zimbabwe’s wildlife from hunters is a thankless task. Many Zimbabweans see safari tourism as leisure for “the big white man,” mainly meaning white South Africans and expats. “In the city, people don’t like us,” says Chelepele Phiri, a tall, sinewy Zimbabwean who has worked in the bush as a park ranger for almost ten years. “When they drink, we can get into fights.”

With an annual trade of up to $20 billion worldwide, illegal wildlife is now the third most lucrative outlawed business, after human trafficking and narcotics. Experts, such as the WWF, say the main driver of demand is Vietnam’s emerging, commodity-conscious middle class. For centuries, the Vietnamese have used rhino horn powder as traditional medicine to alleviate fevers, measles and heart conditions. More recently, the horns have come to possess more mythical – and scientifically unproven – qualities, such as a cure for cancer, an aphrodisiac and as a fashionable hangover cure.

“Rhino horn trade has morphed into a social status, a badge of wealth and social connections,” says Melliken. Horns sell for an estimated $60,000 per kilo on the black market. By comparison, ivory sells for between $500 and $1,000 per kilo, gold for $40,000.

In Zimbabwe, where unemployment hovers near a staggering 90 percent, financial concerns often trump environmental ones, Dean says. A rhino horn often weighs four to five kilos, and for many Zimbabweans, the choice between $2,000 to kill and dehorn a rhino and the monthly wage of $250 IAPF can offer rangers is an easy one.

“We simply can’t offer the same amount of money that poachers can,” says Dean. “So you need to instill some sort of passion, you need to light this fire inside the guys and show them that these animals are actually worth saving. But I think at the moment, a lot of communities are not seeing the benefit from these animals.”