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Up close and Personal
Rhino in Mkomazi National Park
© Joan Itanisa
Rhino

Sawubona from UMkhuze Game Reserve in Kwa Zulu Natal; A section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site. The 40,000 ha fenced Reserve on the plains of the Elephant Coast that is well known for its big 5 is a typical bushveld protected area with extensive wetlands on its Southeastern section. The wetlands host hippos and crocodiles while the rest of uMkhuze is home to wild dogs, buffalos, cheetahs, elephants and of course rhinos both black and white! Interestingly Kudus, impalas, myalas and the famous Julius Malema the elephant live in the midst of human activity!

Fast rewind to Rangers’ Day 2018. WWF Tanzania joined the rangers and other conservationists in the world to celebrate and honor the lives, commitment and dedications of the rangers in Selous Game Reserve. George Atanas was honored as the best ranger for his outstanding efforts in protecting the wildlife and natural resources in the most famous and biggest natural game reserve in the African continent. WWF committed to give George an international ranger tour so he can experience how others are working in protecting their natural resources and especially the black rhino. South Africa was selected mainly because of its biggest black rhino population; the country is home to more than 2,000 black rhinos which make about 45% of all black rhinos in Africa and the world!


 

With George at Umkhuze
© Michael
With George at Umkhuze

Day 1
Having travelled to Durban the day before, the WWF team and George arrived the uMkhuze Game Reserve late afternoon and were met by Eduard Goosen the reserve’s Conservation Manager, Michael Langley the rhino monitor and who will apparently be our host and Lawrence Nene the head ranger. Both teams were excited to exchange knowledge on a common interest and looked forward to spending fruitful three days, with a promise of a lot of fun and a bit of work!
First adventure was that same evening where we joined Michael for a camera trap setting. We drove into the reserve and walked for a few meters with caution to remain silent and walking without making any noise because that specific area was crawling with predators! And just a few meters ahead we saw very fresh adult lion tracks; Michael said they were less than an hour old! And we still walked on, like seriously!
We got to the destination and we were taken through the process with deciding on the correct tree, selecting the correcting angle and mounting the camera intact (by using screws so that poachers won’t have an easy way of removing them but again elephants and other animals wont tear them out because they sometimes do). That done satisfactorily, thankfully we went back to the camp peacefully with a promise to meet each other at 6 the next morning for a real rhino tracking!
  

Michael setting a camera trap
© Joan Itanisa
The tracking

Day 2 
Its 6 in the morning and everyone is ready and excited looking forward to a rhino filled day! All our gears are ready but aghhh its freezing cold! But we are determined to do this. We were joined by Baba Peterson Myeni who has been tracking rhinos for the past 27 years. A funny guy who will sometimes imitate rhinos’ moves and sounds for us
In one line we started walking and I begged to be somewhere in the middle of the line just in case. After some few silent minutes of walking Michael stopped and showed us some tracks, saying “this is a black bull and has been here not more than an hour ago and he is heading this way”, pointing on a direction. I had to ask how he knows that and that was explained very well. So we started tracking that bull. At some point Michael stopped and gathered the group together and told us we were in a very dangerous area, “I want you to stay closer to me and if you see any animal please don’t run”! I silently said a prayer for protection! We moved on zigzagging in the wilderness following the bull’s tracks, about three kilometers in Michael stopped us again and said, “I forgot to mention that rhinos can be very defensive and if they see us before we see them they will charge after us. So be vigilant while we walk and look for a big tree where you will climb in case we are attacked. Don’t hide behind the shrubs as they can go through that in no time”Now I started saying a serious prayer, because I couldn’t remember the last time I climbed a tree! Told God He knows am an amateur and I got to get back safely to tell the story!
After about 7.5 Kms of tracking, losing and finding the tracks again we decided it was about time we stopped for the day. We had chosen a one sneaky bull that day. We were tired but never disheartened! Agreed to get back to it the next day.

Checking out animal droppings
© Joan Itanisa
Checking out animal droppings

Michael said he had plans to go watch the rhinos at the drinking hole that night and invited us to join, we all said we will. Who didn’t want to see the rhino! He said we will use Infra-red binoculars and we will be able to see the animals very clearly.
At 7pm he picked us up and we went into what is called a hide (a nicely built place just at the drinking hole). We waited for about half an hour and we were informed that 2 rhinos were approaching (cow and calf). The bino was passed along. At first I couldn’t see anything; just some very bright things (I guess I was expecting to see real rhinos!). Someone had to explain to me exactly what I should be seeing and voila there were the rhinos! White and bright! Michael identified all the rhinos by specific names. He knows all the rhinos in the reserve just by seeing them! I will explain that later. We enjoyed the infra-red watching and we ended seeing about seven rhinos that night, with calves and one pregnant cow! What a sore sight!

strategizing for the day
© Joan Itanisa
The team

Day 3
5.45am was a call today. We were ready and looking forward to a luckier day. We had to drive for about 45 minutes to pick our rangers for the day. Today we are with Mangena and Gina. Both serious and totally committed to what they are doing. We haven’t walked for even five minutes we are stopped to observe some tracks. There are several and Michael explains that they are of three rhinos (a white one because the tracks are larger and a cow and a calf). We follow the cow. We are cautioned again to be watchful and silent. Only a few meters into the wilderness we are urgently stopped again and told to move back and look for a tree nearby! Michael and the rangers move slowly ahead and stopped. Michael comes back and told us the rhinos are out here and he will take us one by one to watch. It was indeed a lucky day for all of us. George went first and came back a few minutes later all smiles. It was my turn and I ask if I can take my camera with me, was told not now. We don’t want to disturb them and make them run away, not yet! Look at them, so big and real! I stood there just mesmerized. This is real, not on TV, not a picture, what a beautiful sight! Had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming.
When all made their rounds, it was time to take photos, sadly mother and calf were not in a photo shoot mood and they decided to hide. Couldn’t get even a single shot, what a waste! Nevertheless we were indeed excited. Michael said he has never had such a short tracking time with such results. The rangers filled in the details of the seen rhinos in their small books and in about two hours we were ready to go back to the camp triumphantly.
We went back to the office unfortunately Eduard and Lawrence were not in as there were having a busy day with caught poachers and a snared wild dog

The data
© Joan Itanisa
The data

Michael who’s only been at the reserve for four years explains how they monitor the rhinos with a major emphasis to the black rhino. All the adult rhinos are uniquely notched which makes it possible to identify each individual, but one has to completely watchful and passionate about the job to be that good at it.  The rhinos are identified as BF 001 or BM 001 (BF for Black Female and BM for Black Male). Records for each individual are meticulously kept and updated every time a rhino is sighted. Health condition, sex, where it was sighted, what time, who was on the tracking team and whatever other information that will help in monitoring is recorded.
uMkhuze relies very much on technology when it comes to rhino monitoring. Apart from the camera traps whose images are recorded after every fortnight they also use smart packs like CMORE and DES which tracks ranger patrol movements, fires, poachers etc
Like other reserves in Africa they face poaching, encroachment and of course fires most of the time ignited by local communities who live just 400 meters from the reserve.
We said our Siyabongas and it was time to get back home. But not before George excitedly said he can’t wait to get back to Matambwe and help start a serious monitoring approach for Selous. He is amazed by how each individual is committed with their work and how passionate they are about their wildlife. He has also been very impressed by the beautiful and convenient living conditions of the rangers.
Will I want the same experience again? Ohh yes but I am starting practicing my tree climbing skills right away!

 

Ngiyabonga kakhulu, hamba kahle

Joan Itanisa , Communications Manager