'Be quiet. Don’t move,' he whispered. Black rhinos are short-sighted and curious; this one wanted to investigate us. We sat spellbound. She came closer and closer. My heart was pounding. Nothing around us mattered and all other sights and sounds were obliterated. We could hear only her snuffled breathing.
We sat entranced. She was centimetres from the vehicle when she snorted loudly, turned and jogged off into the burnt landscape. Just like that, she was gone.
When I set out to write this story, my brief was to tell you where you’re most likely to experience black rhino sightings. However, I faced a formidable challenge. Authorities and experts asked me to drop the article until poaching had subsided, but poaching shows no sign of abating. In fact, if we don’t act with great urgency, the only rhino sightings your children or grandchildren will have will be in zoos.
So I won’t disclose where I had the privilege of experiencing great sightings; instead, the black rhino viewing travel guide highlights the places that are well known for their sightings and have strong anti-poaching measures in place. This article will tell you what the situation is, what is being done about it and what you can do to help. It’s that critical.
Every week, more than eight rhinos are killed. This rate is increasing. The poachers have the advantage: they know when and where they’re going to strike, while the people trying to protect the rhinos are working in the dark. Everyone is on high alert for any sight, sound or smell that is incongruous with the bush. I travelled to KwaZulu-Natal to find out more about the situation and entered a war zone.
On my first day, in the middle of the bush, two gunshots shattered the silence. I jumped. Simon Morgan, a director of Wildlife ACT (a wildlife-monitoring organisation) and my host on the assignment, reassured me.
‘They’re shooting bait to dart the wild dogs this afternoon. It’s nothing to worry about.’ I felt silly but relieved.
The familiar brrrrrrrrrrrr of the crested barbet started up again after a midday bush siesta and I could hear the distinctive duet of black-collared barbets in the distance. I knew the hum of the cicadas would soon fill the sticky evening air. It was peaceful – a stark contrast to the poaching frenzy. I wondered how the poachers could be so brutal and destructive in a place where so many of us feel connected to our roots.
‘The bush completes you as a human being,’ said Clive Vivier, founder of the Zululand Rhino Reserve (ZRR), as we walked up the banks of the Msunduze River in front of his lodge.
‘We are designed to live in a natural environment. It touches our inner core. Protecting black rhinos is the right thing to do. We need to look after this species, but it’s going to take blind, dogged determination. You only protect what you love, love what you know and know what you’re taught.’ Clive had a vision to create a protected area west of the N2 highway in KZN, where people and plantations threatened to replace the natural vegetation. Through perseverance, he was the guiding hand behind persuading the owners of 38 farms to drop their fences. The area expanded from 6 000 to 20 000 hectares in one year – the perfect size to hold a population of black rhino.
A WWF and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife initiative called Black Rhino Range Expansion Programme (BRREP) seeks to rapidly grow the black rhino population by establishing new habitats in South Africa. The programme started in 2003. Since then, there has been a 34-per cent increase in land available to support a black rhino population. Dr Jacques Flamand, the director of BRREP, has managed to increase the population numbers steadily by five to six per cent every year. However, there has been an exponential increase in the number of rhino being poached. If it continues, the black rhino population will start shrinking at the end of 2012.
Consider this: in 1970 we had over 65 000 black rhinos, but in 2011 only around 4 200 are left. In 2010, over 300 rhinos were poached; this figure is expected to double this year.
It was raining on the day I met Pam Sherriffs from WWF and Jeff Gaisford from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in Hilton. The grey clouds did nothing to lift my sombre mood. ‘Around 50 years of rhino conservation is under threat,’ said Jeff. ‘As a result of banning the trade of rhino horn, we’ve driven it underground and lost control. We’ve lost 96 per cent of our rhino population in 40 years. We need an African solution for an African problem.’
In the 1970s, Operation Rhino was started as a possible solution. Dr Ian Player is a gentle, wise man with an innate passion for his cause. He spearheaded Operation Rhino, which saved the few remaining southern white rhino from the brink of extinction. He did this by forming new white rhino populations. It’s a pity he has to experience the re-emergence of rhino poaching in recent years, threatening his life’s work.
With the surge of rhino poaching in 2010, there’s a school of thought that we should start putting our huge stockpiles into the market – in effect legalising the trade, but controlling it extremely tightly. The amount of rhino horn we have and the current trade would possibly bring the market cost down and hopefully make it uneconomic for poachers. With the current population numbers and natural mortalities, we should be able to ‘feed’ the market without having to farm for horns.
Poachers darted and hacked off the horns of a seven-year-old rhino near Ladysmith last year. Why shoot a rhino when you can dart it? The effective target is much larger: by darting a rhino you can hit it once anywhere on its body.
Her two-week-old calf, panic-stricken by the juddering of the chopper and the shouts of the poachers, became confused. A chainsaw drowned her screams as she ran off into the thicket. Her mother was left bleeding.
Waking from a drugged sleep, the rhino struggled to breathe through maimed nostrils. She wandered for days looking for her calf, but the youngster had died of starvation. Rangers found the mother six days later and had to decide whether to euthanise her. They decided to save her life.
She now wanders the Tugela Game Reserve with a gaping scar. It seems that helicopters, machine guns, bullet-proof vests, night-vision binoculars, prescription tranquillisers, axes and electric chain saws are the new preferred, expensive weapons of mass destruction.
While horror stories like these abound, there is also hope. The passion and love many of the reserve owners and monitors have for the black rhino was abundantly clear. I went on a game drive with one of the monitors, whose name we’ve chosen to withhold to protect him. His bond with a female black rhino and her three-month-old calf was touching. ‘Come to me, my bebe’ he said. The little calf turned its head towards us, recognising the monitor’s voice. She took a few steps forward, sniffed the air and then trotted back to her mother.
I returned to my room later that day and opened an email with the subject line, ‘18 rhino carcasses found in Mpumalanga.’ A massacre, just after I had experienced the magic. My disappointment and feelings of despondency were absolute.
‘By being inquisitive, a black rhino moves out of its flight cycle into its fight cycle,’ said Simon Morgan, the monitor of the first BRREP population of black rhinos in Phinda Private Game Reserve.
‘They are not docile and are likely to come closer to the disturbance, give a warning charge, try and scare it off, turn and retreat a little before doing the same again. I have been stuck up a tree for nearly an hour with a black rhino continuously repeating these steps.’ Due to their feisty temperament, black rhinos’ horns are more expensive on the black market as they are more difficult to poach. It’s known as the ‘fire horn’.
Wildlife ACT monitors wildlife on most of the BRREP sites free of charge, relying only on volunteers to sustain them. They’ll be the first in South Africa to implant sophisticated GPS tracking devices into the horns of black rhino. The project will start at Somkhanda Game Reserve, a community-owned reserve. The hi-tech tags were developed by Stephan Britz from Stellenbosch to monitor livestock, but in this application, the ProTagTor technology allows the position and movement of a black rhino to be monitored 24 hours a day. The satellite sends and receives data every 60 seconds and will set off an alarm if the rhino starts running, or if the animal moves outside the programmed borders.
‘With the new transmitters, we’ll be able to follow their movements at night. We’ll learn more about black rhino movements with these units in a week than we have learnt over years of daytime observation’, says Simon.
The fate of the rhino is a clear sign of what could happen to our wildlife if we don’t act now. The battle must not be won by slaughter, but by intelligence and perseverance.
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