Saturday, April 11, 2009

Getting the horn

Last October we added the relatively new joy of tracking wild rhinos on foot to the Red Chilli Safari tour. We kept one tour as the tried and tested itinerary, and marketed a new one, called "Big Five on a Budget", which included all the usual game drives and boat launch trips in Murchison Falls National Park (where one has the potential to tick off at four out of the 'big five' game animals), but also tacked on a visit to Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, just off the road between Kampala and Masindi (thereby ticking off rhinos, the remaining member of the 'big five').

The Northern White Rhino used to be indigenous to Uganda, but years of civil unrest and war led to extensive poaching of these magnificant creatures, and the last homegrown Ugandan rhino was killed in 1982.

In the last few years, Rhino Fund Uganda has created the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary to help them with their aim of, one day, releasing rhinos back into the wilds of Uganda.

The Rhinos at the sanctuary have been donated to Uganda from various sources (four came from Kenya and two came from Disney in Orlando, of all places) and they are working on a breeding programme to grow their numbers and develop sustainable rhino 'families' that they can later release into national parks like Murchison Falls and Kidepo.

The Sanctuary itself is 3,500 acres of bush - a mixture of swamp and savannah - situated along the Kafu river basin area near a small village called Nakasongola. The Rhinos move vast distances around the sanctuary every day as they graze and deal with minor herd 'disputes'.

A Rhino in the long grass

(A couple of months ago I phoned the director of the Sanctuary to discuss some business matter, only to find she'd been bush camping all week as they tracked a runaway Rhino. He'd fought with the other dominant male and ran off, out of the safety of the sanctuary and into the surrounding countryside. Angie, her husband, and some of their rangers had been tracking the beast for days in an attempt to bring him back by gently guiding him back towards the sanctuary, rather than having to resort to darting and transporting him, though, as she pointed out, they were 85km off road in the middle of the bush, and couldn't have got a transporter out there if they'd tried.)

The rangers not only guard the rhinos and protect them from potential poaching threats, they have also succeeded in habituating the group to human presence, so that small groups of visitors can be brought through the bush on foot to view the rhinos and help generate some income for the Sanctuary.

This source of income is increasingly essential - a few years ago it seemed quite the rage for corporate donors to give to Rhino Fund Uganda but apparently 2009 has seen barely any 'large' donations or support of this kind. They are surviving, just, based on tracking permit sales and accommodation (they have a beautiful guesthouse and backpacker accommodation where people can stay overnight).

Tracking them is pretty exciting. Depending on where they are within the 3,500 acres of bush you may drive the first section in your vehicle, having already picked up your ranger. He knows where they are within the sanctuary, and you'll pull up and park some distance away from the group. If you want to spend 90 mins tramping through bush you can ask them to have you leave the vehicle a bit further away, but usually they get you to about ten to fifteen minutes walk away from the rhinos and start from there. Then it's a matter of following the ranger as he walks through the bush. You may see a bushbuck or some birdlife in the bushes as you make your way through the long grasses (or swamp - one group we sent were very game and decided to wade through thigh high waterlogged swampland to get to their rhinos - but they did avail themselves of a hot shower and a change of clothes on their return to the lodge!) and eventually, you'll see a couple of ranger trackers ahead of you. Then you know you're close. The ranger will tell you how to behave around rhinos, and, slightly concerningly, how to react if charged. Apparently their eyesight is terrible, but their hearing is great, so speak quietly around them, if at all, and if charged, stand your ground until the last possible minute and then step aside, matador style.

Mmmm. There is a bad joke in rhino conservation circles that goes along the lines of "If a rhino charges you, the best thing to do is to pay up".

When you suddenly see them, they're massive. Big grey prehistoric things, sleeping or standing in the shade, maybe even have a munch on some grasses. And when they move, lumbering is the only word to describe it. But then again, I'm lucky enough not to have seen them move very fast at all. And that's the way I'd like to keep it.

So if anyone is visiting Uganda it really is worth dropping in to see them. The thrill of seeing wild rhinos up close is amazing, especially when you are on foot. And it's a worthy cause. One of the cows was pregnant last year, but miscarried. But now, it seems that every one of their three cows is pregnant. So babies are expected. And soon. We keep sending trips off every other day expecting the next minibus to come back telling tales of rhino calves.... lets watch this space.

Ironically, many people who are independently travelling around Uganda probably don't go and see them because they are reliant on out of date guidebooks. The Sanctuary was only set up a few years ago, and has only been open to visitors for less than that, so it's no wonder it's not mentioned in books that may have last been publishes in 2005 or so. In fact, we've booked people on our 'Big Five on a Budget' trips, who have then rung us up a week later saying "If my guidebook says there are no rhinos in Uganda why are you taking my money to send me on a trip where you say I get to see Rhinos - I mean how is this possible?".

Though the idea of setting up completely impossible trips is quite amusing - roll up for the Red Chilli Dodo Birdwatching Tour... for more info...

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