The thunder crack of rifle shot hung for a faint second in the air. Then, with a tremendous tumble, the white rhino hit the dirt. It had taken five bullets to bring the animal down, the final one fired from near-point-blank range. Now, as Chumlong Lemtongthai watched the creature give up its last, pained breaths, he saw only one thing: money.
“Let’s go,” he said, instructing his associates to clamber over the corpse, plant themselves astride the head, and remove the animal’s twin horns with a few thrusts of a bone saw. Lemtongthai, who’d grown up in Thailand but had made his way to South Africa to strike it rich on hunts like this one, moved deliberately, keenly aware that the work that mattered most to him was just beginning. He knew that a small fortune was his to be won. But first he had to spirit the horns out of Africa and into the hands of his associates in Laos. Once there, they’d be fed down a supply chain that he helped control.
Hitting the black market in China or Vietnam, the horns would be shaved into a fine powder and packaged into tiny vials, and then sold to those who cling to ancient beliefs about their power to heal all manner of maladies—like rheumatism, perhaps, or maybe cancer. The price for such a specious remedy is steep. The rhino dust—sometimes stirred carefully into tea, other times ingested directly—can fetch $65,000 per kilogram. For Lemtongthai, that meant nearly $200,000 for a single horn.