A rhino called Maria ran through a hail of bullets to try to save her newborn calf in Zimbabwe’s southern Save Valley conservancy.
With unbearable cruelty, poachers hacked off Maria’s horn while she was still alive and left her to die. But her calf was rescued, and today, nine-month-old Sabi is thriving in a tightly guarded rhino orphanage not far from where his mother gave her life to try to save him.
Maria had given birth two or three days previously in the northern part of the conservancy near Msaize Ranch, when a gang of poachers started tracking her last April.
Late at night, anti-poaching expert Bryce Clements, 35, heard the sound every ranger dreads: shots, coming from somewhere deep within the one-million-acre park.
Early next morning, his team of rangers set off. “We could see signs of a couple of takkies [plimsoll-type shoes] that were anti-tracking. You know, the kind they use to hide their spoor,” he said. “We found this little rhino, about five days old, just lying there.”
Mr Clements, who runs Anti-Poaching and Tracking Specialists, grew up in western Zimbabwe, where his father led schoolchildren on bush expeditions. He can read the bush like the back of his hand, which is how he can recount the sequence of events leading to Maria’s death as if he’d been there, watching it unfold.
After female rhinos give birth, they move their calves away from the afterbirth, which attracts predators. Maria was doing just that when the poachers found her.
Mr Clements said: “She smelt them and ran. The baby followed her but he could only go about one kilometre.
“Maria stopped, began to browse, stripping branches of their leaves. But the wind wasn’t in her favour. Shortsighted as all black rhinos are, Maria did not catch the poachers’ scent. They took off their shoes, crept up and began to shoot – seven times, on rapid. Maria ran. Then she stopped and turned back for her baby.
“She was getting whacked, but she went back for that calf. How that mother stayed alive so long, getting hit like that with an AK…”
But the calf was too weak to respond.
Mr Clements said the poachers shot Maria another 17 times. “They dehorned her while she was still alive,” he said. “It was the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Against all odds, the calf survived a night in the open. When rangers and Mr Clements’ father found it that morning, it was shaking with shock. “It got up, screamed and ran at us. But as it was ramming him, my dad spoke to it. It started suckling his hand. It was such a privilege to walk that baby out,” Mr Clements said.
Local ranchers provided the milk formula that rhino calves need, and Sabi was soon transferred to the rhino orphanage.
Not all calves are so lucky. So valuable is rhino horn to the Asian trade that poachers now kill even the smallest rhino. Two calves were killed in the Save conservancy early last year. One of them had just 40g of horn.
Maria’s death marked Mr Clements and his team deeply. But it also made them more determined to fight poachers, often at considerable danger to themselves. “When you get shot at together and you survive, there’s a bond between you for life,” he said.
Nine months after his mother died, Sabi is doing well. One poacher is in jail.