Punpitak Chunchom, a member of a Laos-based wildlife smuggling syndicate poses with rhino horns taken in pseudo-hunts.

Apocalypse Rhinoceros

By Julian Rademeyer

Departures: Apocalypse rhinocerosIt is a sound you never forget. Perhaps because it is so unexpected in an animal weighing two tons: a piercing, unearthly keen, like a child crying out in pain. It is hard to describe and even harder to endure.

The first time I heard it, I was in a cramped office staring at a computer screen while trawling through thousands of photographs and a handful of home videos that had been made by a key figure in an international rhino horn smuggling syndicate. It was a unique record, not only for the rare insight it gave into a shadowy criminal underworld but also for the horrors it revealed.

Some of the video clips had been shot on cell phones and were mercifully brief. One showed a rhino carcass being butchered; you could hear men laughing as they removed the horns. But there was another clip that was far longer and filmed in high-definition. It trailed a group of men: two heavyset Afrikaners carrying rifles, a tracker and at least two Thai men. For 20 minutes they walked, boots scrunching on dry African soil and parched scrub. Then they spotted what they had come for. In the shade of a tree lay the hulking shape of a white rhino. It appeared to be dozing.

There was a sharp crack as a rifle shot rang out. A few seconds of silence followed as the rhino struggled to its feet, confused and disoriented. The sound was muted at first; an almost indiscernible mewling that rose steadily in pitch. Blinded by fear and pain, the animal turned full circle, then charged headlong through the bush. More shots rang out and puffs of rust-red dust erupted from its hide as the bullets tore into it. The desperate cries continued until it fell, its last ragged breaths caught on camera as its killers stood over it.

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