South Africa: Do rhinos make good cattle?

Brendan Borrell, for the Pulitzer Center

A troop of baboons clambers up the granite rocks overlooking the Mauricedale Game Ranch, some 25,000 acres of South African brush squeezed between Kruger National Park to the north and the country of Swaziland to the south. For the last seven days, I've been crisscrossing the brush on five hundred miles of dirt tracks learning about the inner workings of a private game reserve.

Some conservationists may shrug at such reserves as wildlife prisons, and, indeed, electric fences line the 42 km perimeter. But just outside all you see is a patchwork of sugar cane, papaya, and other agriculture – a biological desert. They say just 7% of South Africa sits on protected land, and many believe that the only way to further preserve the country's rich plant and animal biodiversity is by convincing private landowners to be friendly to wildlife. But who would want a rhino? These massive animals eat hundreds of pounds of forage a day and won't think twice about trampling you.

Mauricedale's manager is one of a few brave souls who trying to profit from a burgeoning rhino market as the beasts have multiplied to overwhelm the country's national parks and game reserves. The ranch now hosts more than 200 white rhinos -- South Africa's largest breeding population on private land -- and selling calves to other ranches both domestically and in Asia represents a significant chunk of the farm's income. To deter poachers, rhinos are anesthetized every two years and their horns are removed. Currently, it is only legal to export live white rhinos or mounted "trophies" obtained during approved hunts, but the ranch's owner has also been stockpiling these horns with the hope that a legal trade will one day be resumed.

Life on a rhino ranch certainly isn't easy. On Saturday morning, I met 61-year old Timothy Mnisi, who has been a tracker there for the last 10 years. Wearing his green canvas uniform, cap, and rubber boots, he tells me about the time last March when he was out scouting for a white rhino calf. A black rhino – one of 22 on the property – plowed into him, ripping his pants and slicing open his leg in three places before knocking him down and running away.

Mauricedale is hardly a pristine ecosystem, but when it comes to biodiversity it sure beats cattle.