Kristián Gyöngyi, the Hungarian rhino specialist who was recruiting and training the dedicated black rhino monitoring team, was killed by a rhino on the morning of 7 June 2017. Steffen Stubager went rhino tracking just 18 days before he was killed.
Text and photos >> Steffen Stubager
Aragorn* weighs 1421 kilos. He has big dark-grey mean looking eyes, halfway hidden under thick fat eyelids. He is 13 years old. Nature had ripped a pointy shark fin shaped tear in his left ear. In his right ear, people had cut out two squares of flesh to recognise him when they find him in the bush.
Krisztián was a good sturdy man with a warm smile. At 43 years old, he wore a few days of silver stubble on his face, rough like the thorns that slashed the front window of the dark green pickup that we were driving into the bush.
Birds ran like little dinosaurs in the tracks of the wheels, straight ahead and not to the side like they should have to avoid our oncoming vehicle. Baboons sat dangling on branches, looking out and shading their eyes against the early morning sun, hands pressed against their foreheads like caps.
So strange it is to write about this man I barely met but who made a deep impression on me. I had originally come to write about Akagera National Park in Rwanda and how well it has done fighting poachers, reintroducing lions and rhinos, and boosting tourism. I sat in the office with Sarah Hall and Jes Grüner, two of the park’s managers. In a wood and glass cage on the floor a Puff Adder blew itself up like a balloon, hissing at us. Sarah knew how to spice up my story.
“Can you run fast?” she asked. “I can run very fast,” I said. “And do you know how to climb trees?” “I am a good climber.” “Then you should track rhinos with the rangers.”
I smiled. It was a wonderful idea. She added that I would have to sign indemnity stating the park held no responsibility in case of my death. I never signed. I went out with Krisztián and his team to find Aragorn.
Aragorn hid between the bushes in the jungle. We were five men. Krisztián walked with the radio system, looking out for the position of Aragorn who had an antenna glued into his horn with dental acrylic. Anthony carried his Kalashnikov, just in case. Fidèle and Olivier, learning from the Hungarian – one of Africa’s best rhino trackers – each shook a sock filled with ash in the air to know the direction of the wind. The wind blew towards us. Aragorn could not smell us even if he knew we were there, and with his bad eyes he would not see us.
“Favourable,” said Krisztián, whispering. “Now, let us not step on any branches. Let us not make any mistakes.”
It was as if Aragorn had just moved into a new apartment in a new city in a new country after living his whole life in South Africa. He was drawing a map inside his mind, of the trees and the hills and the rocks and the smells and the sounds and the tastes and the restaurants and the bars and the mud wallows and the resting places, and he was dumping dung balls the size of a human skull, kicking and spreading them with his hind legs so it smelled lovely in the air, reaching the nostrils of the females to let them know: I am interested. After all, he had been here only for nine days.
Then there was Hercules.** According to Krisztián’s radio system, somewhere not more than a few hundred meters from Aragorn, Hercules hid himself, weakened after three months in captivity, scraping his horn against the wooden bars. Now, regaining strength and foraging for food, it was a matter of days before Hercules and Aragorn would fight for the land they both wanted to control – land that only had space for one of them.
Thorns pulled out threads of my army green shirt. We only whispered and we stepped around the sticks, holding ourselves low, slinking through the yellow stalks of tall grass that cut into the joints of our fingers.
Krisztián taught me the hand signals for faster, slower, stop, gather in a group, get low, there is a dangerous animal, there is a rhinoceros, and climb a tree, and as we moved from bush to forest, I kept one eye on the invisible path before us, while the other searched for good and safe trees to climb.
It was dark below the dense trees. The sun did not reach this place which Krisztián whispered to me was a jungle he was not used to from his time in Malawi. He felt unsafe. My gut filled with butterflies.
“Let us search for open space.”
I have had nightmares that began here. I cannot explain why they begin in this dark hole below the treetops. Anthony stopped, pointed his finger and made the rhinoceros sign.
I saw nothing but I heard the screams of the baboon. He had eyes more accustomed to the jungle, and was warning Aragorn, his new blind friend, of our coming.
Krisztián and the rangers ducked, and I ducked the lowest. He shook his ash sock and nodded. Wind still favourable. Anthony pulled me fifteen or twenty steps sideways and to the left, to a place where we could no longer see Krisztián and his two men. We snuck into the grass that was as tall as we were, so close together I could hear the ranger’s heart beating fast against my shoulder. His elbow stuck into the wet soil, the Kalashnikov ahead of him, he pointed at the tree. He whispered so close to my ear I could feel his warm breath. “When Aragorn charges we climb.”
I could not find Aragorn the big bull in Anthony’s binoculars. I only saw a big red-brown rock and my hands were shaking and my blood was pumping and I contemplated how, in this cool morning, I would climb the tree on one side so Anthony could climb it on the other. I anticipated each step up the branches, how I could climb my way up out of the danger I felt in my chest. I had one chance to climb it right. Just one.
The red-brown rock turned around and I saw his horn and the flies buzzing around his neck and I knew it was Aragorn I had been looking at all the time, covered in mud from an early morning bath. He moved and as he charged, Anthony said with his hand: stay where you are. Fifteen or twenty steps to the right, branches crackled and broke in loud slow noises. Elephant noises, I thought, confused, and I imagined its big fat front legs breaking through the sticks we sneaked and ducked to avoid, ears spread wide, twisting its trunk like a worm.
Somewhere in this park there is an elephant with a half trunk. It got stuck in a snare and was only freed when it pulled its own nose off. It is from over seven years ago when poachers had more control of this park than the authorities.
It is from the time before Sarah and Jes were in Akagera, collecting 8,000 snares (the roughly made metal kind that animals step into and pull tighter and tighter until they die), and confiscating hundreds of motorbikes from intruders who used them to set their traps or illegally collect East African Sandalwood. The motorbikes are still there, waiting to be picked up, but their owners do not dare.
This was the time when poachers carried their canoes on top of their heads through the papyrus from the Tanzania shore, sailed onto the lake and planted cannabis on the islands. They put out snares filled with chunks of hippo flesh to catch crocodiles. And they hung up big nets between trees and burned off land to scare the buffalo and the warthog and the hippo and the leopard and the impala into the traps like schools of fish in a net. The meat went as far as Congo. Maybe game meat is considered good. Maybe it is just cheap. After all, stolen from the park it is free. And the rangers were older than today and in such a bad shape that they could not hike the hills but were too young to retire, and one day, while patrolling, they walked into a trap. Above the trees they saw smoke from meat being smoked. They left the car and walked in on the camp, careful, expecting confrontation, but before they even got close, poachers surrounded them and shot them in the back. Two died.
Those were rough years for Sarah and Jes. Had anybody told Sarah that she would still be there seven years on, she would not have believed it. Now over 200 staff, amongst which 80 are law enforcement, take care of the park. They’ve constructed an advanced surveillance system that monitors the whole the park, information gathered in a secret control room full of screens and computers and other electronics. This is a room where elephants and lions can be followed step by step and in real time – dangerous information for the wrong eyes to see.
Donors flew in a helicopter and gave them a team of strong and ferocious anti poacher dogs trained to sniff, hunt and lay down intruders. They were specially trained in the United States and the Netherlands. They flew out and destroyed the cannabis fields on the islands. From arresting 220 poachers and seeing 200 get away in 2013, last year they only arrested seven. Animal numbers increased from 5,000 seven years ago to over 12,000 today. The lion – which died out in 2000 in Akagera, poisoned by cow herders in the years after the Genocide Against the Tutsi – were in 2015 flown in from South Africa: two males and five females. Now, there are 19 lions, and in May, 18 of the rare East African black rhinoceroses, also from South Africa, were introduced in the park after a decade of extinction here.
The country now has the Big Five to help attract more tourists than ever before to boost the economy in promote conservation efforts.
But the rhino especially attracts vicious poachers, who are growing bolder in the hunt for the highly valuable rhino horn, that fetches a price of more than USD $75,000 per kilo, mostly in Vietnam, where it is sought after as a cure for cancer, inhaled as a status symbol, or used as an aphrodisiac. In South Africa, an average of three rhinos are killed every day. Poachers fly in with helicopters, shoot or tranquilise it, chainsaw off the face to get as much of the horn out as possible, and fly away. It takes 15 seconds, and two people are enough. In a zoo near Paris, on a Monday night, poachers broke in and shot four year old Vince three times in the head and sawed the horn off. It is easy to cut off as it is made out of the same material as your fingernail.
As they put it, Sarah and Jes cannot lose Aragorn and say, “Oh, well, we did not think it would happen.”
I lay in the grass with Anthony, the ranger with the Kalashnikov. My heart was pumping fear into my body.
I no longer saw the red-brown rhino. I felt it all in my guts and I whispered to my protector but I do not know what I said. He told me with his hand: stay low. Only silence, and then… Anthony giggled. I laughed too. What else could we do? We crept backwards out through the grass, legs spread like a frog, elbows at the ground. We moved back and found Krisztián, Fidèle, and Olivier in each of their trees.
It broke slowly, and I listened to that loud crackling sound, and I fell into the abyss, down to the rhino. I thought he would come straight at me.
They climbed down. We left through the jungle we had come through, got onto the gravel road, found the car, noted Aragorn’s waypoints, and drove off.
Just like Anthony and I, Krisztián was high on fear.
“What happened in the jungle?” I said. “Was it an elephant?”
“I fell down. I haven’t fallen from a tree in 16 years. Aragorn approached. The tree looked good. I climbed it and two and a half meters up I grabbed a thick good branch but it was soft inside, rotten. It was like a movie. It broke slowly, and I listened to that loud crackling sound, and I fell into the abyss, down to the rhino. I thought he would come straight at me. God, it was so lucky I got up that tree again.”
“It sounded crazy, like an elephant.”
“It comes with the job. It happens that people climb a tree and bees attack. You get lots of stings from the wasps but you gotta stay them out ‘cause they are better than a rhino.”
“He was a stone’s throw away but I thought he was a rock until his wrinkles moved,” I said.
“He is happy there. And you saw his fat neck. He was looking for a place to take a nap and he found a good spot. The branches had bite marks. He is eating and a man who eats is a happy man. He is fat like a pig, relaxed and unstressed. His shoulders are heavy, the hip is thick, and the back is filled with muscle. He will mark his territory, build a dung mitten, soon he will walk out to find a woman, and with Hercules within hundreds of meters, it is getting interesting,” said Krisztián. He paused and added: “There will be a fight.”
Krisztián parked the four-by-four at the ranger’s house by the lake. Swallows were enjoying the sun, tumbling in the dusty red clay mud. We sat at a bench. Anthony had hot water ready in a tall big jug.
“Anthony, can you get some ice cream, please?”
“Not amazi. Ice cream. Strawberry, vanilla, chocolate… I am joking, Anthony.
There is no ice cream. We are in the bush. Let us have some coffee.”
“I like it with milk powder and sugar,” I said. “It is like drinking candy.”
“Back home I have a high pressure coffee maker. It is really good, with a creamer. You don’t find it here in Africa. But in the bush, milk powder is fine. So fine. Some of the rhinos are so friendly you can scratch them on the nose, even feed them carrots. But not Aragorn. This park is a flagship, a beaming light of hope for other parks.”
“We always read about death and dying. But this is also a story about how the poachers are being combated.”
“I think we should read about success stories in conservation not only gloomy stories. Listen: look at this jug. There is a message.”
I read the message: There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved. I say love is nonething special.
“Nonething special? I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it is about humility?”
“I am still thinking about this.” He drank his coffee. “Coffee is so good after walking. Back home people are used to such comforts, like having two chocolate brownies two times a day. They will suffer here, with the lack of Wi-Fi and such things. But I enjoy the bush. In Malawi we had elephants around the house and such things. It is fantastic. Last week I was driving in the afternoon looking for a missing male. I was with my wife and my daughter and suddenly there was a rhino with her calf on the road. So my little daughter, she is only 17 months old, she saw a rhino, she saw two, the youngest and the oldest rhinos in the park. It was very special.”
He bumped his fist into his coffee cup and spilled coffee onto the bench.
“Ahh, look at this. Such a mess. Spilling the coffee. I am a messy Hungarian. I look like someone falling from a tree.”
“That is sometimes what we do in life.”
“I feel pain in my kneecap. I think I fell on it.”
“Did you hurt yourself?” I asked.
“I thought I would hurt myself but I landed in a nice cushion of grass. I thought: ‘Oh, my God. I will break my backbone.’ I was afraid. I was immersed. The funny thing is, when I was falling my whole life did not flash through my mind. I was almost enjoying it as I got down. Then, I just thought: ‘Oh, shit, I will crack my cranium or break my knee and the rhino will charge me.’ I stood up and I had not broken my back so I climbed up. Anthony, are you ready? Let us drive out to find the other guys.”
We drove back into the bush along the red dirt road. The other rangers came towards us and Krisztián shouted out of the car window to Benoit, his young white Namibian assistant.
“Sunburned? Are you sunburned again?”
Benoit had red cheeks but smiled.
“Yes, I always get burned.”
Krisztián got out of the car and told Benoit how he fell from the tree and landed in front of the rhino.
“The branch was this thick. I mean, I don’t grab shitty branches. But it was a powdery shitty thing and when a rhino is there…”
“We had to climb a tree as well,” said Benoit. “We were tracking a few animals. Fresh, fresh tracks, and we came through, and on the soft soil we were looking for spoor. We went onto the lake, and suddenly there came Adrian and Limpopo*** like 50 meters away, and we ducked into the grass.”
“That is crazy, man,” I said.
“They went into the bush, and me and Francisco followed, and they were rolling around in a mud wallow just off the road.”
“Ahh, super,” said Krisztián. “Did you take pictures as well?”
“No, you see, it was really bad. We had to climb a tree because it was really close. But we could hear them splashing around, and they came right past us.”
“But they ran?”
“No, they didn’t run. They didn’t see us on the road. We literally just ducked in.”
“Wow. It would have been just perfect to shoot a video. That’s fantastic. Did you take a waypoint?”
“We did, we took all the data, so it all worked out.”
“Very good, Benoit. Fantastic. So it was the second, no maybe even the third time that Francisco’s team spotted rhinos. That is fantastic. We need to keep this road closed. It is just such a… the best… most promising. It is good. It is good. Good session. Did you hear them splashing in the mud?” Krisztián asked.
“Yeah, and we could hear the little one squeaking. You have this massive animal with this baby sound.”
I keep a little blue rhinoceros in my backpack. The rhinoceros is made out of some aluminium can. I got him from a man in South Africa and he told me the little animal with the two long horns and its lazy eyes and ears would protect me. He named him Kumbulani, meaning ‘remember,’ and that is all there is.
*New Rwandan name is Intore. **New Rwandan name is Mfizi. ***New Rwandan names are Ineza and Kimasa.