Last December was an eventful month in Zimbabwe's Zambezi Valley. First, there was a shoot-out between park rangers and poachers. This was followed by a lion attack on a group of canoeists from the Dutch Reformed Church. Then a nearly naked Zambian fisherman who knew nothing about fish was chomped by a crocodile and landed in the hospital and ultimately jail. Along the way there were the usual floods and washouts that come with the onset of the rainy season. There were also three separate manhunts for armed gangs of poachers bent on plundering the Zambezi Valley's rarest treasure—the last great wild herd of black rhinos on earth.
The valley is quiet in the last brittle days of the long dry season. But on the first Sunday in December, bruise-black clouds whip over the Zambian escarpment, bringing the first walloping down-pours of the rainy season. The sun-baked pans and streambeds fill with water and slip their banks, washing over most of the bridges and roads that have been built in a feeble attempt to knit together the various wild regions of the more than 3,800 square miles of this valley.
When the rains come, life is renewed: Pink-white storm lilies burst into bloom on the barren sand flats, which are suddenly crawling with bright red Christmas spiders and newly revived insects. Lions climb trees to stay dry. Thousands of other game animals—kudu, zebras, elephants and rhinos—wander away from the floodplain toward the inland tangle of scrub, known as jesse bush, which suddenly explodes into leaf.
And throughout the soaking valley small bands of rangers and scouts from the overextended, underequipped Zimbabwe Department of National Parks and Wild Life Management brace themselves for the onslaught of poachers who will follow the rain. Hordes of them will cross the river from the neighboring country of Zambia in darkness, secure in the knowledge that they can now trail the rhino deep into the forests of Zimbabwe and that their tracks will be washed away in the flood.
On Tuesday, Dec. 9, a five-man antipoaching team patrolling the hilly woodlands near Kariba Gorge spots four men walking down a distant ridge. One has an AK-47 assault rifle slung over his shoulder. Without warning, the patrol opens fire, raking the elephant grass with bullets. The poachers dive for cover. The man with the AK sprays a few bursts out of the grass in the direction of the rangers. Everyone seems ready to dig in for a fight. The shoot-out ends when the clouds open and drop a solid wall of water between the ridges.
Later, the government patrol finds the body of a slender young man wearing a Zambian army-issue webbing belt. He had been shot through the back as he tried to crawl to safety. He is the 19th man to die in the Zambezi Valley for the crime of hunting rhino.
"We've made the first contact of the season," Glenn Tatham declares later that day as he strides into his office at provincial parks headquarters in Chinhoyi, a tiny farm town in Zimbabwe's northern highlands. "The game is on!"
Tatham is the 40-year-old newly appointed chief warden of Zimbabwe's national parks and the driving force behind the highly controversial anti-poaching Operation Stronghold. This is the code name for Zimbabwe's shoot-first, sort-'em-out-later war against rhino poachers.
Tatham is a tall man with an abrupt, military manner that has earned him the nickname General Patton. As he talks, his expression changes like the African weather—stone-serious one moment, then brightening suddenly as a smile appears out of nowhere.
Tatham has since moved to the capital from Chinhoyi, where his office was sparsely furnished, the only decorative touches being a ghastly elephant-foot trash basket by his desk and a child's crayon drawing of a rhino pinned to the wall. If the office had an unused feel to it, it's because Tatham was rarely there, spending most of his time in the field.