The Last Rhinos: one man's fight for the future of Africa's behemoth

The late conservationist Lawrence Anthony gives a wonderful, personal account of his efforts to save the endangered rhino.

Lawrence Anthony describes his "intensely personal" attempt to safeguard the future of rhinos, an animal he calls "eternally beautiful". Gallo Images
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Consider the rhinoceros, a three-tonne, kneeless herbivore, looking like some refugee from dinosaur times, with armour-like skin – up to five centimetres thick – and an enormous head, topped off by two even more enormous horns, the larger of which averages 90cm in length. The phrase “so ugly it’s beautiful” comes to mind.

Shockingly, though, the magnificent rhino may be on its way to extinction – with one of its subspecies, native to Africa, already essentially gone – owing to the greed of some human players and the ignorance of others.

Indeed, the South African author Lawrence Anthony's wonderful, if alarming, new book, The Last Rhinos: My Battle to Save One of the World's Greatest Creatures, condemns from its opening page the "past and present governments of Vietnam, China, Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan".

The reason: their failure to act against the booming black market Asian trade in rhino horns, which are erroneously believed to have medicinal value. In fact, as Anthony points out, rhino horn consists of “little more than keratin, the same fibrous structural protein you find in hair and fingernails”.

Despite this the demand remains insatiable. “On the streets of China or Vietnam, ounce for ounce, the horn is more valuable than gold,” Anthony writes; the average rhino horn is valued at about US$250,000. For that reason, in the rhino’s stomping grounds of South and East Africa, a particularly vicious breed of poacher has emerged: men with automatic weapons and helicopters who shoot the animals with tranquilliser darts, then hack off their horns while they are still breathing. Men so ruthless they even booby trap the carcasses with grenades as retribution against those, like Anthony and Africa’s heroic park rangers, who are trying to stop them.

Anthony worked closely alongside rangers at Thula Thula, a wildlife reserve and safari lodge that he and his wife Françoise ran in Zululand, South Africa, until his death last March.

A United Nations award-winning animal conservationist, Anthony wrote (with brother-in-law Graham Spence) two previous books: Babylon's Ark, which is about his efforts to save animals at the Baghdad Zoo during the Gulf War, and The Elephant Whisperer, which chronicles his efforts to calm, and thereby save, a herd of aggressive elephants at Thula Thula.

The Last Rhinos describes his "intensely personal" war on rhino poachers in 2007. "Rhinos have an ancient, eternal beauty," Anthony writes. "With their massive bodies, clad in thick folds of prehistoric body armour topped by a magnificent scimitar horn, they fascinate like few other creatures." Yet more than 400 rhinos a year are slaughtered in South Africa. "That's a new dead rhino every 19 hours," the conservationist writes.

No wonder he makes it his business to convince poachers from the local tribe that a rhino is worth much more to them alive – for the tourist income it brings – than dead. The professional poachers from outside are something else again.

Anthony, who was a big, rugged South African, comes across in his book as shocked and dismayed by the fact that not only the black rhino, the most numerous of the species (whose numbers have been reduced from an estimated one million in South Africa in 1900 to a mere 4,000 today), but the northern white and southern white rhino are also endangered. At the start of Anthony’s story, he learns that there are only four of the former left at Garamba National Park, an enormous reserve and Unesco World Heritage site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The trouble is, Garamba is controlled by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). One of the world’s most vicious insurgent groups, it has been engaged in a fierce 25-year war with the Ugandan government. Operating in the jungles of the DRC, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, it is infamous for its mass executions and rape, abduction, mutilation of victims and use of child soldiers.

The war has displaced two million people. And the LRA’s cult leader, Joseph Kony, a self-styled religious prophet and clairvoyant, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and labelled a “global terrorist” by the United States.

Here, Anthony’s story takes an unexpected turn. He cannot win support from the DRC’s fractious parks authorities and conservation groups for his plan to extract the last four northern white rhinos from Garamba and move them to relative safety in South Africa and other locations. So he approaches the LRA itself during peace talks in Juba, South Sudan.

Amazingly, the rebels trust him. The white rhino, it turns out, is a spiritual totem to some of the Acholi tribesmen, who make up the majority of LRA soldiers. Soon, the rebel forces’ representatives are visiting Anthony in Zululand to discuss the possibility of his serving as an intermediary between the LRA, the UN and the Ugandan government.

Anthony realises that he, a mere conservationist, has sufficient leverage to negotiate with this force that has terrorised hundreds of thousands of people in the region. He uses the opportunity to impose his own conditions: protection of the northern white rhino in Garamba, of course, but also an end to the use of child soldiers and the closing of the then-crowded refugee camps in northern Uganda, where two million Acholi, fleeing the violence, are held – against their will, the LRA say – and subjected to famine, disease and rape.

The rebels tentatively agree. But they want Anthony to get them assurances that if they do protect Garamba’s rhinos and allow rangers there to operate without interference, the UN’s military units will not attack their camps.

In this way, Anthony becomes a high-stakes negotiator. Then, amazingly, he is summoned to the LRA high command’s hideout in the jungles of South Sudan. He recounts, in hair-raising detail, his terrifying journey along almost unnavigable paths into Sudan’s dense jungle, surrounded by bandits hostile to the LRA fighters who now, ironically, are his protectors. Ultimately, he meets with Kony’s deputy, Vincent Otti – himself a terrorist wanted by the International Criminal Court.

Readers more drawn to the fascinating animal lore Lawrence imparts will likely prefer the charming interim chapters he includes about life at Thula Thula during the months of LRA negotiations.

Stories like that of the Mozambican spitting cobra that dropped from the thatched roof at Thula Thula’s guest lodge one night onto the dining table – during dinner, of course – in hot pursuit of a mouse that had tumbled onto it first; about columns of siafu driver ants (safari ants) marching by the millions in lockstep and able to “strip a living creature to bare bones within minutes”; and about Anthony’s fierce protection of Heidi, his reserve’s own sole southern white rhino.

Most fascinating of all are the conservationist’s incredible accounts of elephant telepathy and how they communicate among themselves via low-pitched rumbles. There is a story he tells about how elephants from North and South Sudan that fled the violence there to emigrate to neighbouring Kenya and Uganda suddenly returned after the Sudanese peace agreement was signed. “How did they know that hundreds of miles away the war was over?” Anthony asks.

Meanwhile, Anthony makes progress with Otti and his generals at their jungle meeting. Kony, who is in touch by satellite phone, cannot attend because the surrounding rivers are too high. This is also keeping the four rhinos at Garamba safe from poachers, but only temporarily.

Still, Anthony forges on, pushing for international monitors to be deployed at the Juba talks to reassure the LRA that they will not be attacked, and discussing with the rebels the possibility of ending the war not with ICC-style justice, which they flatly oppose, but a truth and reconciliation commission like the one established in post-apartheid South Africa.

Then an aerial survey of Garamba confirms what Anthony already suspects: those last four northern white rhinos living in the wild have been killed by poachers, effectively making this subspecies extinct.

Then another blow: Heidi, the rhino at Thula Thula, also falls victim to the illegal trade.

A grieving Anthony acquires two new baby rhinos that must now be guarded day and night.

“This was the future of conservation in Africa,” he writes, “24-hour guards risking their lives with outdated weapons against machine guns and helicopters to protect critically threatened wild creatures.”

Clearly, the passing of this conservationist – Anthony suffered a fatal heart attack and died on March 2 this year at the age of 61 – is a great loss to the cause of endangered species protection, particularly rhinos, the second-largest land animal (after elephants) on Earth. If humans don’t understand this loss, apparently the animals themselves do.

There is simply no scientific explanation for why, on the night Anthony died, the elephant herd at Thula Thula left their grazing grounds to lumber right up to Anthony and Françoise’s house, where they remained for hours before disappearing again into the bush.

“They came every evening for the next week as the sun set,” co-author Graham Spence writes at the close of The Last Rhinos, “until his ashes were scattered on the land he loved. Then they left.”

Joan Oleck is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.