Tracking rhinos on foot in Uganda

“Follow my instructions at all times” stated Robert Tumusiime, my guide at Ziwa rhino sanctuary in Uganda, as we left our vehicle and headed into the African bush on foot.  Due to recent rains a proliferation of tall grasses populated the flat terrain, and colourful birds – flycatchers, rollers, bee-eaters, orioles, weavers – chattered and danced from tree to tree and bush to bush around us.  Apart from that it was wonderfully silent.

“It won’t be easy to see rhinos amongst all the vegetation” I said.

“Don’t worry, they are there” replied a smiling Robert.

“That’s precisely what I’m worried about!” I thought to myself.

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Rhino Fund’s Robert Tumusiime gets me up close and personal to habituated rhinos at Ziwa.

With 24-hour monitoring by a team of trained and committed rangers, Robert and the team knew exactly where the rhinos were feeding that day.  Using a modern two-way radio and a more traditional series of whistles that each ranger understood, Robert and his team manoeuvred us to closer to our quarry.

And suddenly there they were.  And running in our direction…

“Keep calm”, said Robert as we hid in a dense thicket, “they are just playing with each other”.

Amazingly, we had encountered a large gathering of six or seven rhinos – adult females and their young – excitedly greeting each other, with two one-tonne youngsters jousting in a mock fight barely 20 metres from our bushy refuge.  Breathless and full of adrenaline, I nervously fiddled with my camera settings and fired off a couple of blurred frames.  Taking a deep breath, I composed myself and tried to be mindful and appreciate this close encounter.

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Zawadi peaking through the undergrowth. Seasonal long grasses made photography a challenge!

I doubt I have enough adjectives to describe the experience of walking in the African bush alongside wild rhinos.  Wow, was all I could think.  On a regular safari, tourists are to a certain extent insulated from the wildness by their vehicles and the sound and smells of engines.  I’ve also had African wildlife-watching experiences on horse-back safaris (Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe), by bicycle (Lake Mburo in Uganda), and in a canoe (in Botswana’s Okavango delta).  None of them compared to this.  Being so close to such enormous armour-plated wild animals, protected only by the trust I had in my guide, his understanding of rhino behaviour, and a few small trees and shrubs, was an exhilarating experience to say the least.  It’s a full-on sensory overload.  Given their bulk (adult white rhinos can weigh 3 tonnes), rhinos are surprisingly quiet – yet at close quarters you can hear them breathe, snort and grunt to each other, coupled with the rhythmic sound of their grazing, and even the smell of the earth disturbed beneath their feet.  Visually, you can easily appreciate the rugged texture of their skin, their deep wrinkles, their huge toe-nails, their pig-like tails, their comparatively small eyes and – with a big lens or binoculars – even their wiry eyelashes.  And all to the beat of my over-active heart!  Wow indeed.

Later I was lucky enough to see, on separate occasions, both of the sanctuary’s new-born calves – Apache and Madam, with their mothers.  Far from being aggressive or over-protective, their mothers were calm and allowed my guide and I to observe them from a respectful distance.  For such large animals, they were remarkably gentle, though like all toddlers the youngsters were inquisitive and curious about their surroundings – playing in the mud, nibbling newly discovered plants, and occasionally gambolling around like spring lambs – before suckling from their mothers and having a nap in the shade once the equatorial sun got too hot.  I felt privileged to witness these moments of tenderness.

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Feeding time for baby Madam and her mother Laloyo.

But how is all this even possible?  It’s all part of a unique project to reintroduce wild rhinos to Uganda, led by non-profit organisation Rhino Fund Uganda.  Historically both northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium cottoni) and their eastern black cousins (Diceros bicornis michaeli) could be found living in the country, but rampant poaching during Uganda’s post-independence conflicts was devastating for wildlife and wild rhinos were declared extinct in 1983.

Following decades of relative peace and stability, conservationists have sought to reintroduce rhinos to Uganda.  In the early 2000s an opportunity arose on a 7000 hectares privately-owned ranch in Nakasongola district, some 180km to the north of the capital city Kampala.   With a long-term lease on the land secured, non-governmental organisation Rhino Fund Uganda facilitated the re-introduction of six adult southern white rhinos in 2005/6 – genetic cousins of Uganda’s historical northern variety –  four trans-located from Kenya and two from Disney Animal Kingdom in the USA.  Nature took its natural course, and the first successful birth occurred in June 2009 – a male with joint Kenyan and American heritage.  Naturally they called him Obama!  Since then, Ziwa rhino sanctuary has gone from strength to strength, and the current population stands at 21 southern white rhinos – with two babies born in 2017.

“What we do here is completely unique,” states Rhino Fund Uganda’s passionate Executive Director Angie Genade, “We are tracking rhinos 24/7 and making important contributions to rhino research. Nobody monitors rhinos at night – we do.  Plus all of our main activities are on foot, not with a vehicle.  This is what makes it great”.

Tourism plays a major role in this innovative conservation initiative, with an active rhino trekking programme, an on-site lodge and opportunities for other wildlife encounters.

“It costs about $700,000 (USD) per year to run the sanctuary” Angie tells me. “At first we tried writing funding proposals to get money from donors, but we soon realised that the only way our concept would work is if we managed it like a business.  So we made a business plan to generate income.”

“The majority of the income comes from fees for trekking and other activities.  We had 14,000 visitors this past year to trek with rhinos.  They pay on average $40 each – do the maths, that’s a lot.” she adds.

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Experienced guide (and Rhino Fund’s Community Liaison Officer) Kasujja Herbert briefs visitors before their rhino trekking experience. Thousands of visitors come to Ziwa each year to safely observe rhinos on foot, helping to fund their conservation.

Key grants also come from international zoos and conservation organisations, supporter donations, rhino naming and sponsoring initiatives, and through volunteers – who pay to participate in Rhino Fund’s conservation, education and community development projects.

“Every single shilling that we earn goes back into this project.” adds Angie.

Like everywhere as far as rhino conservation is concerned, the main threat to Ziwa is poaching.  In Africa in the last decade, an estimated 7245 rhinos have been poached for their horns – which are illegally exported to Asia for use in traditional medicine.  In South Africa alone, the rate of poaching was three rhinos per day in 2016.  As a result, tragically there are now only around 20,000 white and just 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild in the whole of the African continent, according to figures from Save the Rhino (www.savetherhino.org).  No surprises then that the rhinos’ welfare and security is Rhino Fund’s number one priority.

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Horns have been removed from some of Ziwa’s rhinos – such as this large adult male Hasani, to reduce the temptation for poachers and minimise fighting amongst males.  Others are installed with microchips so that, should the worse happen, the criminals trafficking the horns can be traced and brought to justice.

So how do you keep 21 rhinos safe in an area of 70 square kilometres?  Well, for a start the sanctuary is surrounded by a solar-powered electric fence to keep the rhinos in and unauthorised people out, then there is Rhino Fund Uganda’s unique round-the-clock monitoring by a disciplined team of rangers, and regular foot patrols along with fence line and within the sanctuary itself.  The sanctuary takes a hard line with any suspected poachers and pushes strongly for prosecutions.

“The sanctuary can’t tolerate even a small amount of hunting for bush meat – the man who hunts bush meat today, will try rhino tomorrow” Security Manager Augustine Mudukoyi explains.

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A disciplined cadre of rangers monitor Ziwa Sanctuary 24/7.  Their patrols help to keep the rhinos safe and also generate valuable research data on rhino behaviour.  Here the rangers participate in ‘parade’ in advance of their night shift.

The most important factor for protecting rhinos, however, is positive relations with the local community.

“If a person wants to poach rhino for its horn he doesn’t come to the reserve himself.  He visits the local community or tries to persuade our staff. So we need good relations with the community.  They become our informers” explains Head of Guides Opio Raymond.

Ensuring that relations with the local community are strong is easier said than done, however.  Before the sanctuary was established, the land was used by local people for grazing their cattle and for hunting for bush meat.  With the establishment of an enclosed rhino sanctuary these activities were prevented – with fines payable if people were caught.

“This created no friendship with the community” admits Opio.

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Rangers like Francis record details of the behaviour and health of the rhinos that they are assigned to monitor each day, and help to maintain security.

Recognising the need for more carrot and less stick, Rhino Fund’s team revised their approach to community engagement.

“Slowly by slowly things started changing.  Firstly we set-up an education department and started sensitising the community to the benefits of wildlife.  We also invested in schools, roads, boreholes and other infrastructure so they began to see the importance of the sanctuary” Opio informs.

Pivotal to this was agreeing a mutually-beneficial arrangement for cattle grazing with local farmers.   Apart from the rhinos, Ziwa has very few large herbivores – with no elephants, zebras or buffalo – resulting in an abundance grasses and shrubs which local cattle herders have duly noted.

“During one drought a herdsman with over 200 cows cut the fence and was arrested.  He accepted that what he was doing was wrong, but he could not bear to see his cows die when there was grazing in the sanctuary. As a result of this, the management sat down and agreed that herdsmen could enter in the morning and leave in the afternoon to graze their cows.  The community was very, very happy about this.  It led to the greatest change in community relations” recalls Opio.

“We now have a coordinated programme for cattle keepers to train them how to behave in the sanctuary.  We have a t-shirt system so we can recognise anyone in the sanctuary (each herder wears a coded blue t-shirt), and an ID-card system.  No ID – no grazing” explains Community Liaison Officer Kasujja Herbert.

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Local herdsman Israelite has an agreement with Rhino Fund to graze his 40 cows inside the sanctuary from dawn until dusk.  This benefits the local community and helps to manage the sanctuary’s natural habitats. Note his uniquely coded blue t-shirt, which Rhino Fund rangers use to identify him from a distance.

Another factor that is strengthening Rhino Fund’s standing is employing people from the local community (and ensuring their jobs are fulfilling), with the sanctuary now employing around 114 people in total – of which around 70% of staff are from the local area.

“In the past people in the local community were angry as the people who worked in the sanctuary were from outside.  Now more local people are employed – so they feel they are looking after their own animals” notes Kasujja.

Furthermore, paying fair wages, facilitating career progression and having a disciplined workforce helps to strengthen Rhino Fund’s standing in the community.

“It is vitally important that our people are satisfied, to ensure that working for Rhino Fund becomes a passion not just a job.  That way they take ownership” states Angie.

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Rhino Fund has created employment for dozens of people from surrounding areas – including rangers, guides, administrators, retailers, hospitality, security, maintenance and many more. Dorcus here proudly manages the sanctuary’s stores.

Outreach and awareness raising programmes – such as giving talks in local schools and organising visits to the sanctuary for school children, are also important for creating favourable local attitudes.

“If we can increase people’s interest in wildlife in general, we ultimately support rhino conservation.  It’s about people understanding what nature does, and what wildlife brings to their country” Angie explains.

Collectively these actions have created favourable conditions for rhino security – with the objective of reducing the risk of poaching. And so far, it appears to be working:

“There are still a few hunters, but 95% of local people are supporting the sanctuary” Opio proudly states.

So Angie’s message for other conservation initiatives is clear: “Embrace your community. This is vital in any conservation project – if the community don’t buy into what you are trying to do, you will fail – they will make you fail.  You need to try to have a relationship that benefits both parties.  No matter where you go in the world, working with the community is vital for conservation.”

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Rhino Fund supports a range of community development initiatives.  Here local men remove  water hyacinth – an environmentally damaging invasive plant – from a local watercourse.    Rhino Fund fund’s this initiative and their foreign volunteers often work with the local community to do this important work. It’s removal benefits local transport providers and fishermen as well as the environment.

So what’s the long term goal?  To see rhinos re-introduced to the wild of course.

Opio smiles as he explains that “my dream is the same as that of the whole sanctuary – we want to see rhinos put into Uganda’s national parks again, that’s our dream.  We are pioneers in rhino conservation, so would love to see that happen”.

Angie elaborates, “I would like a similar concept to be created within national parks – doing on foot rhino trekking to generate income to support their conservation.  Starting with fenced enclosures of 7,000-10,000 hectares within national parks and 50-60 rhinos per sanctuary, we can generate a breeding population for release.  Once we’ve got a population of 300-400 rhinos nationwide we can then consider reintroducing them to the wild in national parks.  That is good rhino management.  And this concept works.”

Whether this dream will ever become a reality depends on many factors – political will, governance, regional security, funding, Uganda’s development path, tourism infrastructure, public attitudes, global demand for rhino horn and so on – but I can’t help but be drawn to its positivity and ambition.  In its own small way, my rhino trekking experience at Ziwa has contributed to moving a step closer towards achieving this vision.  What’s more, seeing the new-born calves Apache and Madam has given me hope for the future; hope that one day their offspring will be able to roam wild in Uganda’s protected areas.  That after all is what nature intended.

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Madam, Ziwa’s latest addition (as of late 2017).  Named after Rhino Fund Uganda’s Executive Director Angie Genade, who the staff affectionately and respectfully call Madam.

Postscript:

Africa’s rhinos remain under serious threat, but by supporting Rhino Fund and other organisations working for their conservation we can continue to give them the best possible chance for the future.

There are many ways that you can do this, as Angie herself explains:

“The best way to support rhino conservation in Uganda is by visiting the sanctuary.  Once someone has seen what a special place it is they will support it.  There is something for everyone.  Some people are interested in the community, some in education and others in conservation, and it’s possible to support any one of those.”

“You can also adopt a rhino, name a rhino or make a donation. All contributions go directly to our projects.  It could be buying a hoe, a wheel barrow, binoculars, or a bicycle for rangers.”

So visit www.rhinofund.org and get involved!  Or book a stay at www.amukalodgeuganda.com.

And please follow me on Instagram where I will be sharing some of the personal stories of the staff working at Ziwa.

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