Jenny Willson finds more than she bargains for when she travels to Namibia to save local wildlife from poachers.
Parks Canada warden Jenny Willson has left Canada to join an American colleague on a secondment to assist Namibian authorities trying to stem the loss of the country’s rhinos to illegal hunting. But the plan takes a dramatic turn when Willson finds herself in the crosshairs of a conspiracy involving wildlife poachers backed by a shadowy network of international buyers prepared to eliminate any obstacles in their way, including Willson and her new team.
While the Namibian assignment allows Willson to sidestep personal and professional questions that remain unanswered back home, she quickly recognizes that her decision to leave the Canadian Rockies could have deadly ramifications.
About the author
Dave Butler is a forester and biologist living in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. His writing and photography have appeared in numerous publications, including explore, Canadian Geographic, and BC Outdoors Magazine. Dave is Director of Sustainability at Canadian Mountain Holidays, and a Royal Canadian Geographical Society Fellow. He lives in Cranbrook, British Columbia.
Excerpt: In Rhino We Trust: A Jenny Willson Mystery (by (author) Dave Butler)
Sam Mogotsi climbed to the top of a ridge, slowly, quietly. The dry, crystalline soil crunched beneath his boots. It was midday and the sun was high and hot, sucking the moisture from his skin. Since leaving his remote house at dawn, he had been driving and walking for more than five hours and was keen to be home by the time his two boys returned from school. After checking the ground for snakes and scorpions, he lowered himself and sat in the limited shade of a large boulder, his back against the rust-coloured sandstone. He could feel its warmth against the shirt of his uniform, its tan fabric dark with sweat.
Mogotsi began to search the opposite hillside with a slow pan of his 10x50 binoculars. He knew they were close. As he did each day, he’d been following their tracks since he’d spotted them on the road. They were old friends. If he was patient, he would eventually spot them.
Seeing nothing through the high-powered optics, Mogotsi dropped them to his chest and let his experienced eyes scan the slopes unaided, watching for the hint of movement that would reveal his targets against the rugged browns and greys. The rainy season had ended a month earlier, and already, most of the trees and shrubs on the far hillside — the acacias, mopanes, and shepherd trees — were showing signs of drought, their leaves drooping or edged with brown. Surprisingly, a few were still vibrant green. He used these as landmarks while his eyes moved in a practised pattern. He slid his Save the Rhino Trust hat from his head, its dark-green brim ringed with salty white. A slight breeze blew from the north, carrying with it the smell of heat, of parched grasses, of the baking rock at his back, of something vaguely organic.
His eyes continued the sweep.
After a few moments of silent observation, Mogotsi finally saw motion. He again raised the binoculars and watched as the creatures cautiously emerged from behind a grove of mopane trees. It was a pair of black rhinos, a cow and a calf. The pointed lip and lack of hump on the cow confirmed the species. They were moving from right to left, the calf behind and partly obscured by the mother’s larger body. He saw the notch in the cow’s left ear and knew it was Linda. The calf was Buhle, or “Beautiful.” Mogotsi had been given the honour of naming her because he was the first to see her after she was born.
Linda was leading Buhle away from the shade of the trees, though they’d normally be napping at this time. Mogotsi knew Linda’s eyesight was not keen enough to see him at this distance, so he wondered if she’d heard his footsteps as he came up the ridge, or if she’d caught his scent on a slight shift in the wind. Or had she detected the scent of something more dangerous?
Mogotsi smiled. Seeing wild rhinos always gave him pleasure, even though he saw them almost daily. Ten years ago, that pleasure had come from the thought of a quick payday. Then, he had carried a .303 rifle in his hand and a large axe in his backpack. Like today, he’d slowly stalked the animals, staying downwind. His goal would have been to get close enough to the cow so that he could shoot her and, as quickly as possible, hack the two horns from her skull, the larger one in the front, the much smaller one behind. On the two-hour drive to meet his buyer in the town of Kamanjab, he would not have given any thought to the fate of the orphaned calf.
But Mogotsi’s days as a poacher were over. As a full-time rhino ranger hired by the local “Khoadi-//Hôas Conservancy, he was a valued member of the team and could now comfortably support his family with a regular salary. Having grown up with a father and a grandfather who had both hunted illegally and sold horn and ivory to shadowy buyers, or used illicit bushmeat to barter with hungry neighbours, it had taken Mogotsi two years to shift his thinking. But he now understood the saying “A dead rhino will feed a family for a week; a live rhino will feed a family for a lifetime.” He knew it, his family knew it, and so, too, did his community. His wife and sons no longer had to endure boom-and-bust cycles, with money for food or clothing there one day and gone the next. His family and friends respected him, and he was free of worry over going to jail or paying hefty fines. Life was better now.
In his notebook, Mogotsi recorded the rhino pair’s condition and direction of travel, using a handheld GPS unit to determine their exact location. Even though he knew the animals by name, he sketched in the length of their horns, the size and shape of their ears, and descriptions of their tails. Most importantly, he noted his distance from them and their reaction to him at that distance. He knew that this data would be used to fine-tune the guide-lines they followed when they brought out guests from the local eco-lodge to watch these and other rhinos.
Mogotsi rose, pulled his cap down low, and moved out of the shade. He began to walk parallel to the path of the animals, stepping carefully around rocks the size of soccer and cricket balls, moving downhill along the spine of the ridge he had climbed earlier. He looked toward where he expected the rhinos to be heading: a water hole in a low draw, visible in the distance as a copse of green trees. There, he saw a herd of elephant cows and calves, the adults feeding on acacia leaves above their heads, the youngsters cavorting in and out of a tiny pool of water.
Picking his way carefully along the rocky ridge while keeping his eyes on the rhinos and on the ground at his feet for any sign — tracks or scat — that other animals were around, Mogotsi almost missed it — something lay in an opening to his left. When he saw it, he knew that things had changed, suddenly and dramatically. After two days of searching as he’d shadowed the rhinos, it was the very thing he had hoped not to find.
Mogotsi froze, Linda and Buhle forgotten for the moment. Myriad tracks — he recognized those of black-backed jackals, spotted hyenas, and vultures — led to the gruesome pile. Though the bones were mostly picked clean of flesh, he knew they hadn’t been there long; he saw traces of blood and sinew in their crevices. Where sharp molars and incisors had cracked open the bones, the marrow was still red. The action of the scavengers had most likely erased any evidence of the cause of death.
The only portion of the skeleton that still resembled its original structure was a length of spine, and only because the lobes, tongues, and planes of the vertebrae fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The circular pelvis sat next to it, as if resting, waiting for its owner to return. Turning in a slow circle, Mogotsi saw the rest of the bones scattered over a vast area. The skull there on the slope just above him, laying on its right side, empty sockets staring, the lower jaw missing, as was most of the left side of the skull. A lone femur lay a few feet away.
Mogotsi stood quietly, shocked by the ghastly sight, frightened of the implications it would have for the safari lodge and the lucrative wildlife-viewing program that brought new visitors to the conservancy each week. He had to report his find; if he didn’t, someone else would eventually. But most of all, he wondered about the e?ect this discovery would have upon him and his family.
Deep in the Klip River Valley, the sun was dropping steadily toward the horizon, and Mogotsi scanned the scrub brush around him. Was he in danger of becoming the next meal for the area’s predators and scavengers, which had tasted human flesh, perhaps for the first time?
Slowly, Mogotsi fished the portable radio out of his pocket and raised it to his lips. “Klip River Lodge,” he said in a near whisper, “this is Sam. I have found what we have been looking for. I need you to send the police.” He was purposefully obtuse in case any lodge guests were listening.
The voice of the dispatcher crackled in his ear. “What did you find, Sam?”
“I think … I think it’s Chioto.”
“Where are you?”
Mogotsi gave the dispatcher the local name for the area — DuRaan East — and his coordinates from the GPS, just in case.
A response came five minutes later. “Sam, the police are on their way. I also reached the manager on the phone. He is in Windhoek but will come back right away. He wants you to stay there until the police arrive.”
“I will,” said Mogotsi, again turning slowly to look around.
The radio crackled again, but this time came the voice of his partner for the day, a man who was watching a second pair of rhinos about a kilometre away: “I copy that, Sam. I will come to where you are.”
Mogotsi hesitatingly took a step toward the skull, respectfully. Knowing he shouldn’t, but unable to help himself, he gingerly picked it up, turned it to face him, and stared into the empty sockets. “I am so sorry this happened to you, my friend.” A clump of soil fell from the right side of the skull, revealing a hole the diameter of his thumb, opposite to where a chunck of the skull was missing.
For Mogotsi, there was no doubt that this was all that remained of Chioto Shipanga, a fellow ranger who’d been missing for two days, the subject of an intensive search by friends, family, and colleagues. Mogotsi thought about his sister, Martha, and the devastation that his brother-in-law’s death would cause, not only for her, but for their whole family.
Readers will want to see more of this appealing heroine.
Dave Butler takes it up a more than a couple notches with this exceptionally suspenseful and well-researched mystery tale that sees Jenny Willson back in action this time alongside a stellar team of colleagues in Namibia working to save one of the last populations of truly wild black rhinos. In Rhino We Trust is a testament not only to Namibia’s unconventional collaborative efforts to combat rhino poaching — which includes numerous female champions — but also highlights the realities rangers face when confronted by the complex and creepy underworld of illegal wildlife trafficking.
Jeff Muntifering, conservation biologist
Butler’s writing keeps getting stronger...This is a very good entry in a series that one hopes will continue for many years.
Butler’s strong debut shows a powerful heroine determined to bring a nasty but fully fleshed-out set of baddies to justice.
Kirkus Reviews, for Full Curl
Butler will pull you inside the world of anti-poaching and into the precarious edge of the Namibian wilderness. His descriptions of the landscape, the people who live there, the wildlife, the dust, the beauty, the politics and the heartbreak, make his latest book a winner and a must read for any wildlife enthusiast.
Brian Keating, creator of Going Wild