Khamisi spotted the prehistoric giant tree. Large white flowers drooped mournfully from the ends of its branches. To its left, the land dropped away, descending into a bowl-shaped depression. Khamisi caught a sparkle of a tiny pool near the bottom.
Such springs dotted the park, some natural, some man-made. They were the best places for a glimpse of wildlife—and also the most dangerous to traverse on foot.
Khamisi braked to a halt by the tree. "We'll have to walk in from here."
Dr. Fairfield nodded. They both reached for rifles. Though both were conservationists, they were also familiar with the ever-present danger of the veldt.
As he climbed out, Khamisi shouldered his large-bore double rifle, a.465 Nitro Holland & Holland Royal. It could stop a charging elephant. In dense brush, he preferred it to any bolt-action rifle.
They headed down the slope, prickling with basket grass and shrubby sicklebush. Overhead, the higher canopy shielded them from the sun but created deep shadows below. As he marched, Khamisi noted the heavy silence. No birdsong. No chatter of monkeys. Only the buzz and whirring of insects. The quiet set his teeth on edge.
Beside him, Dr. Fairfield checked a handheld GPS tracker.
She pointed an arm.
Khamisi followed her direction, skirting the muddy pool. As he stalked through some reeds, he was rewarded by a growing stench of rotting meat. It didn't take much longer to push into a deep-shadowed copse and discover its source.
The black rhino cow must have weighed three thousand pounds, give or take a stone. A monster-size specimen.
"Dear God," Dr. Fairfield exclaimed through a handkerchief clutched over her mouth and nose. "When Roberto pinpointed the remains by helicopter…"
"It's always worse on the ground," Khamisi said.
He marched to the bloated carcass. It lay on its left side. Flies rose in a black cloud at their approach. The belly had been ripped open. Intestines bulged out, ballooned with gas. It seemed impossible that all this had once fit inside the abdomen. Other organs were draped across the dirt. A bloody smudge indicated where some choice tidbit had been dragged into the surrounding dense foliage.
Flies settled again.
Khamisi stepped over a section of gnawed red liver. The rear hind limb appeared to have been almost torn off at the hip. The strength of the jaws to do that…
Even a mature lion would've had a hard time.
Khamisi circled until he reached the head.
One of the rhino's stubby ears had been bitten off, its throat savagely ripped open. Lifeless black eyes stared back at Khamisi, too wide, appearing frozen in fright. Lips were also rippled back as if in terror or agony. A wide tongue protruded, and blood pooled below. But none of this was important.
He knew what he had to check.
Above the scum-flecked nostrils curved a long horn, prominent and perfect.
"Definitely not a poacher," Khamisi said.
The horn would've been taken. It was the main reason rhino populations were still in rapid decline. Powdered horn sold in Asian markets as a so-called cure for erectile dysfunction, a homeopathic Viagra. A single horn fetched a princely sum.
Dr. Fairfield crouched near the other end of the body. She had donned plastic gloves, leaning her rifle against the body. "It doesn't appear she's given birth."
"So no orphaned calf."
The biologist stepped around the carcass to the belly again. She bent down and, without even a wince of squeamishness, tugged a flap of torn belly up, and reached inside.
He turned away.
"Why hasn't the carcass been picked clean by carrion feeders?" Dr. Fairfield asked as she worked.
"It's a lot of meat," he mumbled. Khamisi circled back around. The quiet continued to press around him, squeezing the heat atop them.
The woman continued her examination. "I don't think that's it. The body's been here since last night, near a watering hole. If nothing else, the abdomen would have been cleaned out by jackals."
Khamisi surveyed the body again. He stared at the ripped rear leg, the torn throat. Something large had brought the rhino down. And fast.
A prickling rose along the back of his neck.
Where were the carrion feeders?
Before he could contemplate the mystery, Dr. Fairfield spoke. "The calf's gone."
"What?" He turned back around. "I thought you said she hadn't given birth."
Dr. Fairfield stood up, stripping off her gloves and retrieving her gun. Rifle in hand, the biologist stalked away from the carcass, gaze fixed to the ground.
Khamisi noted she was following the bloody path, where something was dragged away from the belly, to be eaten in private.
He followed after her.
At the edge of the copse, Dr. Fairfield used the tip of her rifle to part some low-hanging branches, which revealed what had been dragged from the belly.
The rhino calf.
The scrawny body had been shredded into sections, as if fought over.
"I think the calf was still alive when it was torn out," Dr. Fairfield said, pointing to a spray of blood. "Poor thing…"
Khamisi stepped back, remembering the biologist's earlier question. Why hadn't any other carrion feeders eviscerated the remains? Vultures, jackals, hyenas, even lions. Dr. Fairfield was right. This much meat would not have been left to flies and maggots.
It made no sense.
Khamisi's heart thudded heavily.
Not unless the predator was still here.
Khamisi lifted his rifle. Deep in the shadowed copse, he again noted the heavy silence. It was as if the very forest were intimidated by whatever had killed the rhino.
He found himself testing the air, listening, eyes straining, standing dead still. The shadows seemed to deepen all around him.
Having spent his childhood in South Africa, Khamisi was well familiar with the superstitions, whispers of monsters that haunted and hunted the jungles: the ndalawo, a howling man-eater of the Uganda forest; the mbilinto, an elephant-size hippo of the Congo wetlands; the mngwa, a furry lurker of coastal coconut groves.
But sometimes even myths came to life in Africa. Like the nsui-fisi. It was a striped man-eating monster of Rhodesia, long considered a folktale by white settlers…that is, until decades later it was discovered to be a new form of cheetah, taxonomically classified as Acinonyx rex.
As Khamisi searched the jungle, he recalled another monster of legend, one that was known across the breadth of Africa. It went by many names: the dubu, the lumbwa, the kerit, the getet. Mere mention of the name evoked cries of fear from natives. As large as a gorilla, it was a veritable devil for its swiftness, cunning, and ferocity. Over the centuries, hunters—black and white—claimed to have caught glimpses of it. All children learned to recognize its characteristic howl. This region of Zulu-land was no exception.