I’ve been struggling to write a HAPPY New Year post. December is such an awful month in the poaching crisis, with the poachers Christmas shopping, and butchered elephants and rhinos decaying in the blistering heat.
There is a war within wars that very few of us ever talk about..post traumatic stress, the fear of failure, guilt – could I have done more? These are the demons we wrestle with. And especially for Saving the Wild, because our work is so secretive, I personally struggle with the fact that I cannot publicly thank many of the people I work with; the ones who have done it harder so that we can all go further.
When I joined the poaching crisis in 2014 I was a storyteller, not an activist. It would be a year later that I was chosen to lead a crusade against corruption. A few months ago I began writing a book, ‘Blood Rhino Blacklist’, so that if anything should happen to me, there would be a record of the untold story and a true account of the unsung heroes who risked it all.
Saving the Wild is heading into our biggest battle year to date, with three kingpin trials pending in 2019, and the future of the ‘Blood Rhino Blacklist’ in the balance as men and women of the highest integrity go up against the poisonous old guard in the pursuit of justice.
To kick off 2019 I’ve decided to share Chapter 1 of the ‘Blood Rhino Blacklist’ manuscript. It’s not enough to save animals, and lose animals, and then live to fight another day. We need to tell stories, because it’s the stories that will live on forever.
Blood Rhino Blacklist – Chapter 1 – Roll the Dice…
In the sweltering December heat, I dug my hands into the sand, and leaned back, submerging my sunswept hair into the shallows of the Zambezi river. Baked skin cooled beneath waterproof shorts, as crocodiles and hippos eyed me in the distance. I knew at this range in the unlikely event they did decide to have a go, I could easily outpace them and reach the safety of the valley floor. But when the elephants decided to cross my path, they had right of way, and it was time to get out.
Mana Pools in Zimbabwe is one of the last great wild places on earth, and the only National Park in Africa that I have experienced where tourists don’t need a guide to walk. There is a body count, which includes death by crocodile, hippo, hyena, lion, and elephant – but the count is minimal, all considering.
That year, 2014, was my first year working fulltime on Africa’s elephant and rhino poaching crisis. I was a self-funded storyteller writing from the frontline, and even though I had grown up between the National Parks of Zimbabwe and South Africa, I still had much to learn about animal behaviour.
The wild is a wondrous landscape of body language, reaching out and tugging on one’s soul with every stretch and stride. It is the place where humans grow, and become better, smarter, more compassionate beings.
I had no idea what this matriarch’s intention was when she began to stride purposefully towards me. After I stepped out of the river, I settled down on a fallen mahogany tree, while the pachyderm family of ten wallowed in the mud about thirty metres in front. I was enthralled by the babies slip sliding about, swishing their tiny trunks from side to side while the aunties kept a close eye on them. But it was the matriarch’s commanding presence that held my intrigue.
I watched her lead her family as they waded through the Zambezi waters, taking pause on a grassy island that bubbled up with Zambia on the far side. Her sights were set on Zimbabwe, the place she called home. And as I watched her lead her family to land, I knew they would follow her anywhere, their great leader, who would get them through droughts and food shortages, and the hardest times of their lives. And so when she led them away from the mud wallow, up the river bank and signalled to them to go south, they listened, and all that was left was her, and me.
Thirty metres closed in to twenty metres with just a few giant steps, and her head tossed in synch with every step forward, but I had no idea why. From a young age, I had been taught that when an elephant charges, stand your ground, wave your hands like crazy, and shout STOP! And almost every time the goliath will stop; this is what is known as the mock charge. But this head tossing-slow walking behaviour was something unknown to me.
My heart thumped and I began to pant with the rush of adrenalin. The rest of my body parts froze, my eyes transfixed on this living, breathing mountain moving towards me.
As if in slow motion, I was taking in every drop of mud on her leathery skin, her long straight tusks, the crinkles on her trunk, and in those final few seconds all I could see were her big brown eyes…looking at me.
Did she see me as the enemy?
My mind flashed back to the carcass I had seen the day before. The face of a once beautiful elephant, butchered, the tusks, gone. Her body had been riddled with bullets by clumsy poachers who clearly couldn’t shoot straight, and later eaten by hyenas and other scavengers. A single bullet to the brain would have dropped her, but several bullets to the body meant she would have ran first, and then died a slow, torturous death. As I stood beside her ravaged body just 20 hours earlier, I had gritted my teeth and hoped to god that she had died before they began cutting her face off. Only a withered shell of skin and bones remained. By now the ivory was likely in China, being carved into a trinket for someone rich and driven by status symbols; ego was driving the planet’s biggest mammal into extinction.
Was the murdered cow a sister to the matriarch, or even worse, her daughter? Looking down at me now with pensive eyes and stunning long lashes, did this towering giant see me as a friend or foe?
“I’m on your side,” I whispered softly.
Our eyes locked, she raised her right foot, and the world stood still. If time past, it was like a shooting star; fears and dreams collided like Mars falling for Venus, and her foot went down. I can’t remember if I was breathing, but I know I had never felt so alive. She blinked, twice, and returned to her family.
I spent the next few hours on the banks of the Zambezi, pondering my journey ahead. This was not my first close encounter with a wild animal. My previous assignment a few weeks earlier had been in Limpopo, South Africa with rhino orphans so traumatized their human guardians would sleep beside them as they wailed through the flashbacks of seeing their mother brutally murdered by poachers.
But this was the first time my life stood in the crosshairs of a wild animal’s decision making process. We were surrounded by death; her kind being decimated by my kind. And yet she had singled me out, and when she stared deep into my eyes, I saw courage, I saw vulnerability, I saw a warrior. And I saw pieces of myself.
A sublime calm settle over my body as the sun sunk into the escarpment, and starlings burst from the trees. I saw, heard and felt everything; the shimmer on their feathers, the chop of wings slicing the air, their abundant energy flying in flocks from tree to tree.
The tracks of tomorrow were unwritten, but I knew with that one single encounter, the wild had imprinted on me; defending the endangered was my calling.
In 2014 the elephant population was 350 000, and we had lost a third of the population in just seven years, at a killing rate of around 100 a day.
The rhinoceros was even closer to extinction, with a loss of three rhinos a day, and only 20 000 left. In the Zambezi valley, rhinos had already been hunted into extinction, and this weighed heavy on my mind.
I was born in Zimbabwe in 1980, the end of Rhodesia after the bush war. It wasn’t long before my dad, no longer a soldier, packed up my mom, me and my two years older brother Kelvin, and drove us across the border into South Africa to start a new life. The rest of our family stayed, and my heart would forever be torn between two countries.
South Africa is home to 80% of the remaining wild rhino population, and the first time I ever saw a rhino was at Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park (HiP), ‘home of the rhino’, with the highest density of rhinos in the world, and just a three hour drive from my home town Durban where I grew up.
I remember the very first time seeing rhinos, it was a mother and a small calf. I was just a little thing too, single digits, and my mom had taken me to HiP for the very first time. I remember this calf was so small he didn’t have any horn, but curious and brave, kind of the way I was brave running into the ocean when I was a toddler – brave so long as mummy was by my side to catch me if I fell. The baby would mock charge our vehicle with a few bold steps, while his mother mowed the grass nearby with her wide, hungry mouth. Just as the little guy was about to touch the tarmac, he would suddenly stop, as if confronted with a gaping hole, then bounce back to mom’s side. When I looked at his mother, I saw a horn long like a unicorn, and skin like armour. I saw something unlike anything I had ever seen before.
“It’s a dinosaur,” I said to my mother, without taking my eyes off mama rhino.
“Jamie,” my mom said, beaming with the joy of a moment shared in the wild. “The rhino has been around for fifty million years. So you’re right, my girl, what you are looking at is prehistoric, like dinosaurs.”
“Prehistoric,” I said slowly, repeating the word. I think it was the first time I felt like I had seen something extraordinary.
I grew up a teenager in the post-apartheid Rainbow Nation era, but following in the footsteps of my first love, an ecstasy drug dealer, my society was painted with a different kind of colour spectrum; the candyland of acid, and E; the love drug.
I had no idea at the time, but rolling with hustlers and criminals, and my exposure to ‘The Untouchables’ drug syndicate at the age of 17, would be fertile training ground for my thirties when I rose to become a wildlife activist, taking on organized crime, kingpins and crooked justice officials.
I survived the nineties, and spent the first half of my 20s building my fortune, and the second half losing it. At age 20 I joined Microsoft in London as a MSN web developer, and by the time I was 25 I had bought and sold prime properties in London, The Algarve and Cape Town. I’d earned a British Passport by clocking in five years with Microsoft, and I’d travelled the globe. It was time for me to leave MSN and build my own empire back in South Africa.
Swapping bits and bytes for BPM, I went on to produce ground breaking, experiential music festivals from Cape Town to Soweto, uniting a truly rainbow nation under one African sky. On the dancefloor, I found heaven, and the other 300 days a year were hell.
Hunter S. Thompson said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
I am the sum of my parts. I have been broken into a million little pieces, but the good thing about rebuilding is that you get to mould yourself into the person you wanted to be all along.
The Untouchables syndicate taught me how to think like a criminal. Microsoft taught me about data, my first weapon in exposing corruption enabling rhino poaching. And people sometimes remark that I run my campaigns like rock & roll.
In South Africa, sometimes the very people put in charge of protecting our wildlife are the ones causing the most damage. The truth falls on deaf ears, if it is not amplified. The spotlight needs to be so illuminating that the whole world wakes up to such atrocities.
I come from a bloodline of fighters. My late father was the heavyweight champion boxer of Rhodesia. My older brother just came out of retirement at the age of 40, with a broken finger, to win the mixed martial arts title for the third time.
My pen is my sword. And I fight with the secrets of unsung heroes. And when I come to the battlefield, it is with a small but mighty, invisible but potent army, and I come out swinging, every time.
In October 2017, I published what is known as the ‘Blood Rhino Blacklist’, a crooked cabal of magistrates and lawyers. The next day I went to see my tattoo artist and said, grinning, “Here we go again…” And then I placed a white piece of paper with Latin cursive text on his desk, Alea iacta est.
‘The die is cast’ or ‘roll the dice’, is a Latin phrase attributed to Julius Caesar in 49 B.C. as he led his outnumbered, but loyal army across the Rubicon river in Northern Italy, in defiance of the Senate. It was the point of no return.
I knew when I published the ‘Blood Rhino Blacklist’, it would either destroy one of the most powerful and corrupt men in South Africa, and a captured justice system, or it would destroy me.
I rolled the dice, and I never looked back.