I rise from my tent just as the sun is casting its first rays across Kenya’s Northern Chyulu Hills. The Big Life Foundation anti-poaching unit based at Lengloriti is splitting into three groups for the morning. One unit heads out to help a nearby Maasai village locate some lost cattle, another group is attending combat training, and I’m staying behind with Corporal Justus Nzioki for a rhino foot patrol and to check up on the camera traps.
Walking around most of the terrain in this area is no easy feat, with some parts near impenetrable: steep ascents, lava rock and dense thickets full of thorns – it is rhino tough territory. The seven surviving elusive black rhinos that have made these 40,000 hectares their home are the last unmanaged rhinos in East Africa. What that means essentially is that they’re wild and free; they move like shadows, belonging to no one, but they are protected by forty dedicated Big Life rangers, some of whom have never even seen all seven of the rhinos.
Since 2011 Big Life has lost only six rhinos – four to Somali poachers armed with AK47s, and two to snares set by poachers from the Wakamba tribe. This is my second day shadowing Corporal Justus Nzioki, one of their best trackers, and already I know that I would follow him anywhere.
Justus, who turned 30 this year, is from the Wakamba tribe, and he too used to be a rhino poacher, killing with a G3 rifle or a bow and poisoned arrow. A child born into poverty, like so many other children in his tribe, Justus was raised a hunter by his father, and by the time he was 13 he had shot his first rhino.
We head out on a morning rhino patrol, and it’s not long before we come across spoor and Justus whips out a smart phone with a beaming smile. “It’s Naminyak,” he tells me. “See here, and here,” he continues pointing to tell-tale tracker signs. “Let’s be very quiet so as not to disturb her, otherwise she’ll get skittish and move out of the area. We know she’s here now, and we can go around her.”
He then draws a map in the sand, explaining the rhino operation to me with circles and crosses. The rhinos are completely surrounded by various ranger camps, and the nearby Maasai communities act as a buffer informer network.
Just around the bend we come across another spoor. “It’s Dixon! It looks like they’re following each other.” His eyes light up like a proud parent. “We think Dixon may have made Naminyak pregnant. We’re hoping for a baby next year.”
Having ascertained the rhinos’ locations, we check the camera traps and start making our way back to camp. After a couple of hours we take a short break and lean up against some rocks.
“Tell me about your life as a poacher. Did you enjoy killing?” I ask Justus.
“It was a rush,” he replies after a long pause. “I didn’t feel bad, I felt courageous, because I knew I was making enough money to feed my family. But then one day I heard a rhino crying, screaming, just like a human, and I was haunted. I just knew in my heart that there had to be another way to survive.”
Like many other poachers that Big Life has transformed, Justus was never convicted and jailed of a crime. He chose to leave the dark side as soon as Big Life showed him the light at the end of the tunnel.
A superb starling flies above us, and simultaneously Justus and I tilt our heads to the sky. “When I was a poacher, I lived in a straw hut and I owned a radio. Now that I am a ranger I have a wife and two children, a metal sheet house and a TV. And one day I will be able to buy a car. Anything is possible now.”
It is far cheaper to transform a poacher by offering an alternative income than it is to go after them through law enforcement, and don’t even get me started on the rife corruption that permeates every level in the chain of command from docket to courthouse.
We get up and begin walking the final kilometre back to camp. Justus, who is always impeccably dressed in his uniform, walks ahead of me. He plucks an elephant hair from a branch and hands it to me. I give it back to him and extend my arm.
“Can you make me a bracelet please?”
Justus wraps the elephant hair around my wrist three times, ties a knot, and then looks up and we lock eyes.
“Jamie, I am proud of my job. I am proud of conservation, and I hate poaching. I love these rhinos. They are like my children, and I will do anything to protect them.”