“This is one of the rarest sounds you will ever hear on a podcast. Or anywhere.” A tantalising line. Followed by the up-close breathing of a black rhino – and immediately you picture its face. Powerful, cautious and with (we are told) a blue glister in its eyes, that dims in the moments before death.
For six weeks, this BBC Radio 5 Live podcast about rhino horn poaching in South Africa’s Kruger National Park has been building into a harrowing thriller. The cruelty and treachery involved beggars belief: saws, hatchets, exploding bullets. It’s a story of resolute, tough conservationists, rangers both heroic and corrupt, flummoxed guides and the ever-twisting arm of organised crime. The interviews, background chatter and flashes of drama in the park are so vividly recorded that each episode almost takes a physical toll. I was sweating.
Cricketer Kevin Pietersen supposedly presents (he’s long been a champion of the rhino), and his involvement is being aggressively promoted by the BBC, but it is really presented by 5 Live’s fluent and modest Sarah Brett. Steering, analysing and shadowing Pietersen on location, hers is the voice we hear most. She tells us baby rhinos gambol like “lambs in armour”; “little black puddings” with ears rotating like satellites, knobbly hides lightly dusted in a red African soil as though they had been dropped from Mars. Witnessing their mothers’ savage deaths leaves them fragile as shells. They need love to survive. The horn on a living adult, incidentally, is spongeyish to the touch. The skin behind the ears soft. They are shy, but ruinously inquisitive – drawn towards noise and strangers out of innocent curiosity.
In quieter moments, KP muses that the tumult of his cricketing years unleashed in him a person he didn’t always like. But he’s perhaps the least interesting thing here – and yet never more likeable. Neither sentimental nor pompous, happy to let others dominate, it made me think that the clamouring accusations of a “bad attitude” he faced after his falling out with the England management were always pretty bloody disgraceful. But it sounds like a distant, confusing dream to him now. Pietersen knows there are far worse things.
Kevin Pietersen: Beast Of Man
This article appears in the 05 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance