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An Excerpt from

"The Rhino Whisperer"

On Sunday morning, the bi-annual ‘Wild Animals of Africa’ auction was in full swing just outside of Renosterspruit. Breeders from private game farms had organised the event together with an international organisation called  ‘Beautiful Wildlife’.

After about an hour, a bright wintry sun drove the visitors into the large, shady tent.

Everybody sat down on the chairs that crossed the tent row after row and waited for the auction to begin. Everybody meant, everybody with spare money to buy wild animals for their private game reserves and zoological gardens, and those, who simply came for the food. The occasional private wildlife enthusiast attended these gatherings, but the SPCA kept their strict rules enforced, where the purchase of the animals was concerned.

Visitors had been viewing the animals on offer all morning and anything from antelopes to buffaloes, rhinos and wild cats were on offer. Soon auctioneers took turns on an elevated platform, introducing the various lots and taking offers in their typical auctioneers’ chant, while the animals lowed and stomped their feet on the sawdust-strewn ground.

As always, the front rows were reserved for VIPs, mostly politicians and their cronies, well-to-do business leaders and foreign dignitaries. Those without celebrity status and deep pockets, as well as representatives of local and international zoos, sat further at the back. Paddles with numbers written on them flew up in quick, orchestrated succession.

Along one side of the tent, between two entrances that led to the car park, long buffet-tables with delectable snacks and beverages were positioned. The bar would open at lunchtime, but the bartenders were already busy with the polishing of glasses and cooling of bottles. 

A number of corpulent wives and mistresses, who accompanied some of the VIP guests, already helped themselves to the buffet, which had been ordered from Shangari’s celebrated kitchen. They loaded their plates with prawns and salads, while studying each other’s garish wardrobes. To all but those with a genuine interest in acquiring wild animals, the fast-talking auctioneer’s rhythmic repetitions sounded like chanted gibberish.

The ladies at the buffet attended such social gatherings to show off their designer clothes and killer heels. They got naturally bored with their lavish mansions and lofty penthouses in the city and their men felt obliged to offer the occasional entertainment.

This low-key event was one of their least preferred choices and most tried to stay well away from those smelly, noisy animals.

 “...and fourteen... do I hear fourteen and a half? Do I hear fourteen and a half... yes, we have fourteen and a half... and fifteen, fifteen, fifteen...”

Lot 104 was fiercely contested. The hacking singsong by the auctioneers and animal sounds formed a unique soundtrack, making any kind of meaningful conversation near impossible. Not that meaningful conversations were the ladies’ forte at the best of times.

A well-known politician in the front row grunted contentedly and held up his number. He looked around to enjoy the appreciative murmur in the audience and some applause. His dark-blue silk suit seemed a little over-the-top for the occasion, but he was not the only one by far. This was a fantastic opportunity to prove one’s financial worth to the peers that mattered.

“And sixteen million Rand, sixteen million Rand...”

He raised his paddle with the number 351 in an exhilarated rush of adrenaline. Yes everybody, I can afford it! He thought gratified, forgetting that his actual function in government was to mediate disputes in the mining industry.

16 Million Rand was a record price for the rare pregnant antelope. The graceful animal would have her first offspring at an exclusive, private game reserve in Kwa Zulu Natal, joining a white rhino, two zebras and two giraffes on her journey to her new home the following morning.

The game farmer, who owned the antelope, gleefully rubbed his palms together. At last, he could retire in style, hand over the business of breeding wild animals to his eldest son and buy the house on the coast, he’d always wanted.

 Barry Pienaar, the local vet, sat listlessly at the back between representatives of European zoos and wildlife organisations. He was wearing his usual khaki work uniform. Barry Pienaar had not planned on coming to the auction this year and had a difficult time staying sober so shortly after his estranged wife’s funeral. It was a spur-of the-moment decision, more for the benefit of his new assistant than anything else.

Not long now, then the bar would open and he could drown his aching sorrow in the best tipple available.

Lot 105 was introduced. A pair of sturdy warthogs in their prime. “Seven, do I hear seven? And seven twenty five, seven twenty-five, seven twenty-five. We have seven twenty-five...”

The bidders had, of course, inspected the animals beforehand and knew them to be in excellent condition. Bidding was brisk as the numbered paddles flew up one by one. It was a mystery even to an old hand like Barry Pienaar, how the auctioneers could tell, whose bid was the one that counted at any point in time.

Not long and a Zoological Garden in Holland received the winning bid. The modestly dressed zoo representative nodded to his colleague and there was no clapping.

Then proceedings on the stage paused and canned music flooded the tent. Lot 105 had been the last one before lunch. Throngs of visitors quickly formed a line in front of the buffet tables and the bar was declared open. About time, the local vet thought.

“If it’s not Barry Pienaar,” Stanislav Makaroff cried cheerfully and patted the taller Barry Pienaar on the shoulder. Then lowered his voice. “Once again, my deepest condolences, sir...”

The vet flinched and spilled some of his beer onto his surprised assistant vet. The young man jumped aside just in time and most of the beer spilled onto the ground.

“Nicely done, my man,” Stan Makaroff looked back at his bodyguard and nodded appreciatively. Barry Pienaar turned around with a glowering expression. The two men hadn’t laid eyes on each other since the funeral in Johannesburg. Barry Pienaar was anything but pleased to see the man, he blamed for his wife’s hasty decision to leave him and possibly deep down for her death, too.

“What are you doing here?” The jaded vet growled.

His assistant, Janek Gelders, held a half-empty coca cola can in his hand and kept well away from his boss, who was on his second bottle of beer. Barry Pienaar looked as if he was ready to throw it at this cocky man in that strange getup. Makaroff was dressed in a short powder-blue safari suit, matching sandals and a topee hat. Ridiculous.

The bodyguard crossed his arms over his powerful chest in a warning gesture that didn’t fail to make an impression on the khaki-clad Barry Pienaar.

“Leave me alone.” Barry Pienaar snarled the words through gritted teeth and rudely turned away from one of the richest and best-connected men in the country.

“Well now, Barry my man. You don’t blame me for what happened, do you?” Makaroff said in an almost child-like tone.

“And why shouldn’t I?”

Barry Pienaar turned around again and stared ominously down at the cocky man, who wouldn’t leave him alone. The bodyguard cleared his throat in warning.

“Just to be clear, my good man, I had nothing to do with your wife leaving you alone in this most magical place in Africa. It was her desire to leave and she asked me for a job. That’s all. I gave her the opportunity...”

Barry Pienaar lowered his beer bottle. “Sure you did, slime ball. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to speak to somebody over there.”

The vet didn’t feel like causing trouble in front of all his colleagues and acquaintances, but he would sure as hell not be drawn into an amiable conversation with this spoilt jerk. Instead, he walked off with his embarrassed-looking assistant.

Stan Makaroff was not used to being rejected by lesser individuals, but thought it best, not to push his luck under the circumstances. He nodded benevolently at Barry Pienaar’s assistant and a second later, spotted an old friend standing by one of the tent posts.

The unpleasant moment passed and the disagreeable vet was forgotten.

“Oh hello, Basil,” he greeted the sweating politician in his shiny dark-blue suit, who had just acquired a pregnant antelope for sixteen million Rand. “Congratulations on your excellent purchase!”

They vigorously shook hands and Basil Mulambo seemed rather pleased with himself. He nodded at two of his cronies, asking them to leave and Makaroff’s bodyguard took up his position to allow them some privacy.

“Thank you Stan, I think it will greatly improve the bloodline of my antelopes at Lungani Lodge, don’t you?”

“Sure it will... good choice, my man. Had an eye on the beauty myself.” Stan Makaroff laughed and rocked forth and back in his light blue sandals.

“But you don’t have a game farm, Stan,” Basil said.

“Exactly!” They both bellowed with laughter.

“Had a mind to buying one, though,” Makaroff insisted. “Combining business with pleasure is not a bad idea, right?! I mean, does one need an excuse to spend more time in this splendid part of our beautiful country? Wouldn’t mind starting a little something here.”

“You mean you want to buy a game farm in this area?” Basil asked and took a swig from his wine glass. The red wine did little to alleviate his sweating.

“Yes, of course. Love this place. Might have found something not far from here. Alas, it’s not for sale - just yet.”

“As if that would stop you,” Basil grunted.

“You know me too well, Basil... I thought I might start something like Willem van Tonder did. You know... breeding rhinos, harvesting their horns regularly for export to Asia. I heard, he’s got well over one hundred rhinos on his farm close to the Kruger Park by now. He’s doing good business with hunters from overseas as well. Bloody nuisance anyway, those hunting licenses. How much does he take per rhino? 100 thousand? Not bad, I say. He just tells a dumb tourist that he needs to cull one of the animals on his farm and needs somebody to do it for him... and wham! A win-win situation, right? Gets rid of old and sick animals and it’s way cheaper than an official license. It’s his own farm after all. Pity about the rhinos being poached, though.”

“Yes, a real pity,” Basil coughed slightly, not caring one way or the other. Rhino hunting wasn’t his business. He owned one of the most expensive tourist lodges in South Africa. Nice little investment, his game lodge. The sale of rhino horn on the other hand was a different matter and not a good topic for today.

“Lots of work on a game farm,” he complained instead. “Do-able, mind you. If you can find capable workers... otherwise, how would someone like me manage a game farm and hundreds of visitors each year? On top of that... the mansion on the golf estate, the penthouse in Sandton and a wine farm in the Cape? Not to speak of my 50 foot yacht?” The men laughed again. They spoke the same language.

“One has to enjoy one’s riches, right? ... right?” Stan Makaroff guffawed. “I’m rather fussy when it comes to game farms, though. Tourists are not my thing. Everything else, I’ve managed quite well so far.”

“Yes you have. How’s the wife?” The politician inquired in a perfunctory tone.

“Good, good. She’s doing rather well.”

“No children yet?”

“No, we’re getting to old for that sort of thing, Basil. She has her hands full with family business as it is, you know.”

“Yes I bet, she does,” Basil chuckled. “But you must think about the future, who will take over the business one day. Helena won’t want to work forever.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Stan Makaroff said, waving his hand. “Plenty of time to worry about that sort of thing.”

Having no children had been a contentious issue in their marriage for a while, but then Helena didn’t want children and that had been the end of the discussion.

“Right... right...” Basil Mulambo mumbled. He had his own ducks in a row and Makaroff could take care of himself.

“Ah, let’s not talk about that now, shall we? How is the new addition to your family?” Makaroff continued their pleasant small-talk.

“Ah well, Siya is still a bit weak. It was a difficult birth this time. But she’s doing much better and the twins have nannies - of course,” Basil said and looked adoringly at a young, pretty woman in a frilly yellow suit with matching high-heeled Laboutin shoes. She was his idea of beautiful.

“Everything under control on that front, mind you. Have you heard from Theo?” 

He kept his eye on his young mistress, who tucked into the salads at the buffet, chatting to a white lady with a ridiculous hat.

The two men moved to a spot closer to the tent wall and went on to discuss a slightly hairy business in guarded terms. The bodyguard planted himself in front of them and watched every movement in the crowd. You never knew who may be listening, even with all this noise around.

“The situation is under control, Basil. Well almost,” Stan Makaroff reported. “We have a meeting in Saxonwold Drive soon. The whistle-blower has been dealt with. According to orders from you-know-who.”

“The money’s in the account?” Basil Mulambo said under his breath and Stan Makaroff nodded.

The politician fidgeted. His sulking mistress was standing alone with her heaped plate full of slimming treats. The woman with the ridiculous hat had moved on and chatted to some other woman by the desserts.

“Got to go and show my face over there, or Thembeka will skin me alive,” Basil Mulambo said.

“Can’t have that, can we? I’m glad, my wife is not on my case all the time.”

“It all comes with a price tag, Stan. I can handle it. Didn’t you have a thing with this Lorraine... what was her name again?”

“No, I didn’t. It‘s all a rumour. She just worked for me,” Makaroff said with a sigh. “Tragically, she had an accident and we buried her a few days ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Basil stared at his mistress, who waved and began to walk toward him. He fidgeted some more.

“Yes well, nothing but trouble, if you try to help someone,” Makaroff said.

“I’ll say. Well my man, I have to go. Thembeka looks almost as fierce as the wildebeest over there.”

They laughed and patted each other’s shoulder, then Basil walked toward his mistress and pondered how he could best appease her. Before he could reach Thembeka, however, loud squeaking noises came from the general direction of the animal enclosures and a mighty commotion ensued. Chairs tumbled over and a man in a smudged suit helped an anxious woman in a silk dress onto the stage. This was apparently no easy task. Others jumped away from the aisle.

What on earth was going on?!

An incredulous Basil Mulambo soon realised, why people behaved so strangely: the warthogs from lot 105 had somehow escaped their handlers and rampaged down the central aisle in a frenzied bid for freedom.

From one moment to another, the vigorous warthogs were pawing, snorting and squeaking madly, while thrusting their heads this way and that. Shoes, bags and hats darted through the air. Glasses broke. The two determined warthogs were a fearsome sight with their sharp, curled-up tusks slashing about and their tufty tails high up in the air.

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