Rhinos to the fore

Hout Bay author Peter Kuhnert

Hout Bay author Peter Kuhnert’s love of nature began at a young age.

In 1959, the world-renowned palaeoanthropologist Phillip Tobias approached Mr Kuhnert’s father, a respected Johannesburg businessman, for funding.

The younger Kuhnert, then 18 years old and very much at a loose end, was invited to join the accomplished professor on an expedition, an opportunity he readily accepted.

Mr Kuhnert, who launched his first book, Horn, at Exclusive Books Cavendish Square this week, recalls a time when you could see a “hundred falling stars” in the night sky.

“My dad donated a truck to Phillip. I was a very spoilt young person. I had a Porsche and two horses. But when Phillip invited me to come along as a gopher, I could not refuse. I was immediately taken by the night noises of the animals in the bush.”

One night, Mr Kuhnert fell asleep in his “expensive” sleeping bag and accidentally rolled into the camp fire. A Bushman tracker along for the expedition, T!amai, leapt up and immediately threw sand onto the fire.

The encounter was to remain lodged in the memory, to the extent that one of the characters in the book is based on T!amai, who later worked alongside Mr Kuhnert at his safari company.

Horn tells the story of the ongoing rhino poaching scourge in the Kruger National Park, and the Asian syndicates capitalising on one of nature’s most endangered species. It is a subject close to Mr Kuhnert’s heart.

“When my parents went back to Germany, I decided to stay in South Africa. I became a salesman for adding machines, and later went into the computer business. I eventually became marketing director for Unidata,” he explained.

“In 1985, as part of an acquisition job, one of the things that impressed me was a microchip, a passive transponder. Because this chip didn’t fit into Unidata products, I decided to start my own company so that people were able to benefit from this capability.

“I donated a few of these chips to Pilanesberg National Park, where they were inserted into rhinos for tracking purposes.”

In 1993, Mr Kuhnert decided that he had “had enough” of the corporate game and took time out to “explore my roots in Namibia”. However, it was not long before opportunity again came knocking, on this occasion the chance to manage Namibia’s 30 000ha Ongava Lodge.

“We had 40 rhinos on the property. During this time, I received a call from the Berlin Zoo. They told me they had a problem rhino called Brutalis, who was in the habit of knocking over vehicles.

“They asked whether we would be prepared to take him, which we did. Brutalis was very aggressive when he arrived, but after three weeks on the property he began to calm down. He even began to take carrots from me.

“After three months, we decided to let him into the wild, yet he didn’t join the other rhinos, instead choosing to sleep on my stoep.”

When the poaching of rhinos and elephants began to take hold in Africa, Mr Kuhnert knew that he had to make every effort to educate the public on the importance of conserving the species, and set about delivering talks and PowerPoint presentations on the subject to interested parties.

Having always had a keen interest in writing, Mr Kuhnert was prompted by his two grandsons to write down his life story, but given his work with rhinos, chose to embark on a novel telling of their plight and the indefatigable efforts of the people who protect them.

As a 65th birthday gift, his wife Erica, herself a published author, presented him with a writing course at UCT.

He had written extensively since his retirement, but the gift represented the turning point in his ambitions to become a published author.

Through Erica’s connections in the All About Writing pgrammehe met fellow Hout Bay author Gail Gilbride, whose book, Under the African Sun, was published by US house Cactus Rain Publishing.

“It took three years to put the book together, and on May 17 this year it was accepted by Cactus Rain.

“I’ve never been a fan of factual books, although a lot of what happens in Horn is based on fact.

“When it comes to writing, I let things happen. My characters do as they will – within reason.

“It was always my ambition to have a book published one day, so I’m glad it’s happened.”