Opening Lines: Cobus Venter knelt before the six-foot-long mound of freshly turned dirt. In his hand was a flower. The thirty-five-year-old South African planted the stem, gingerly forming a small pile of soil to support it. The sun had burned his tattooed arms the color of the soil and left his face as cracked as the mud around a drying water hole. Though Cobus hadn’t touched a barbell in years, he still carried the musculature of a silverback under his olive-drab uniform.
The priest had just finished saying some words, but Cobus heard only the bleak narrative running circles in his mind, digging a deeper and deeper rut with each revolution. He had thought he left the war, but war had followed him. He didn’t regret the things he had done—he could justify his every action—but he had nonetheless been infected by a darkness. He wondered whether he was the host who had brought the disease here and infected the land and people around him. Soon, they would all be dead, man and beast alike.
Other rangers stepped forward to lay their flowers on the grave, hoping this small act of beauty might somehow offset the ugliness of their friend’s death.
Kruger was a wilderness of souls where one could easily get lost. It was a place of absolute truth and a place of absolute lies. A place of godliness and godlessness.
Every year nearly two million tourists came to Kruger to experience the “Africa” they had watched in nature documentaries and explored in the glossy pages of National Geographic magazines. If Walt Disney had created Africa-Land, it would be Kruger. Its golden plains were dotted with mushroom-shaped acacia trees and boulder piles where magnificent predators lazed between meals and where elephants and rhinos lumbered about in plain view with their offspring in tow. Many visitors to Kruger left with a false sense that the Edenic landscape was Africa’s rule, not the exception. But beyond the electrified gates wreathed with concertina wire was a different Africa—an undefended land where man’s insatiable appetites had stripped away everything that could be eaten or burned, reducing the land to red dust. And this ever-growing void was metastasizing throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
No, Kruger was not the norm, but rather a cross between an ark and a fortress. It was one of the few outposts where nature was waging its final stand. It was, as soldiers like Cobus knew all too well, the front line in a war where the stakes were not just life and death, but the death of life itself. And the fortress walls were now being breached daily by marauders looking to cash in on the end of the wild.
Basani stood off to one side of the rangers, quivering as she wept. She had grown up in Malelane, just outside the park. She met Oupa when they were both training to be field rangers, and they had fallen in love while fighting together on the front lines of the poaching wars. Oupa and Basani made plans that at the end of the dry season, she would put down her rifle and they would try to start a family. Now those dreams were shattered.
Cobus wrapped his heavy arms around her shoulders. Basani was a physically strong woman, able to hold a five-kilo rifle in the low ready position for hours on end. But today she felt frail, her bones shifting loosely in his embrace.
“Oupa was family to all of us,” he said to her. Basani sank into his arms, unable to bear her own weight. She heaved with grief, wetting his uniform with her tears.
Cobus was surprised, and concerned, at how quickly Basani returned to her work as a field ranger. He suggested she take more time to grieve, but Basani told him she didn’t want to be alone. Although Cobus was one of Kruger’s twenty-two section rangers, which meant he was technically her boss, that hierarchical construct had not survived the intimate realities of living and fighting side by side on the front lines in the bush. Cobus and Lawrence and the other rangers at Kruger were her family—her only family now.
In the weeks after Oupa’s death, Cobus and Basani spent several late nights at the dive bars in White River, knocking back Carling Black Labels as she tried to make sense of her pain. Cobus could see she had been ground down by the futility of the poaching war. It affected every ranger in the park. No matter what they did to reinforce the border—fences, drones, motion-sensor cameras, crime scene DNA analysis—nothing seemed to stem the tide of death. Every year, more rangers and animals were being gunned down by shoot-and-scoot poachers who came from Mozambique to try their luck in the “Big Smoke,” as Kruger had come to be known. Making matters worse, Cobus and several of his colleagues were beginning to suspect that the poachers had moles inside the park, who would tip them off to the locations. How else could the marauders locate, in a matter of hours, animals that even trained park guides might not find for days at a time?
Cobus felt the grass sweeping against his bare legs as he flowed silently through the savanna. He was one of a few Afrikaners who wore shorts instead of the standard-issue pants. It was an old Rhodesian bush warfare trick that let you feel the environment. To stay alive in the bush, you needed all your senses switched on.
The coffee was helping, but he was still hungover. The night before, he and Basani had shut down the local watering hole. As one drink led to two, then eight, he told her how he had signed up for the South African National Defense Force because he was looking for adventure, and then became a security contractor in Iraq because he wanted to do some good with his training. But Iraq was the jungle, and there is no good and evil in the jungle—or so he had willed himself to believe in order to justify the things he had seen and done there. In Fallujah, killing was a way of life. It was natural selection on a geopolitical scale. Though Cobus believed those statements to be true, the real truth was that over there, you could either emotionally process your experiences or be a good soldier, but you couldn’t do both. And it wasn’t until he returned to South Africa that the walls he had built to protect himself began to crumble.
Cobus confessed, with a mix of shame and embarrassment, that he felt he had carried some infernal pox home with him. “I feel like the war followed me here,” he told her. He feared that in some way, he had brought death to Kruger and it had found Oupa.
“Perhaps it is not war that is following you,” she said, “but the other way around.”
Her words caught Cobus off guard. He took a pull of his beer to buy a moment to think. “Maybe,” she continued, “you don’t think you deserve peace.”
“I just want to do some good,” he countered. “And the only skill I’ve got is doing evil.”
“You are a good man, Cobus.” Now it was Basani willing him to have hope. “You deserve peace. And love.”
Basani placed her hand on top of Cobus’s and stroked it gently. Cobus froze, uncertain how to react to the tender gesture. As the bartender informed them it was last call, Basani had given him a look—the look. Her eyes lingered as she took him by the hand and led him to the door. Cobus’s heart pounded against his rib cage as they drove in silence down the inky black back roads.
He pulled to a stop at her home. She got out and stood beside the open door for a moment to see if he would be joining her. Cobus wanted desperately to go with her and share her bed, but he would wait. If it happened tonight on a drunken impulse, the morning would only bring her more turmoil. He would wait until her wounds healed, and then, perhaps, he might have the courage to act on his feelings for this unbreakable woman who saw hope for him—that is, if she would still have a cursed, violent man like him after the alcohol left her system.
Review: “Although this book is a fictitious story, it is based on sound research and a real understanding of the issues discussed. Animals will help people realize the horrors of global wildlife trafficking—the cruelty, the corruption and, as we now know from COVID-19, the risk it poses to human health.” -Jane Goodall