It’s just after 5.00 in the morning; I’m on the top of a rugged mountain range set within a massive game reserve in the far north of the Limpopo Province of South Africa gamely brandishing what looks like an ancient television aerial to the skies. At the same time I am listening out intently for the elusive beeps that, if they are forthcoming, will alert us as to which direction to turn, in order to go in search of the rhino we are seeking. Telemetry equipment does have a slightly Heath-Robinson feel to it, but the principle is simple and up to a point, effective. Radio tracking allows you to pick up a signal from a transmitter (such as a radio collar or tag) to the receiver – the aerial. You just punch in the assigned collar number of the animal you are trying to track, find a high point to maximise the amount of terrain your circling arms can take in and hope the aerial can avoid static. You also need to hope the target animal isn’t lying in a hole, behind a tree or in the shade of a boulder; and that you haven’t inadvertently punched in the number of a dolphin on some remote marine reserve by the coast or you really will be going on whatever the African equivalent is for a wild goose chase – and then wait for the signal that triggers the next direction of travel.
One of the best ways to conserve rhino is to know where they are and be active on the properties at which they are located in order to deter poachers. Thus, one of the main activities of this rhino protection initiative is to go out and find the rhino every day, monitor their condition, note their habits and territories, and over time, to habituate them to this surveillance so that more accurate observations can be taken. I was fully prepared to come to the project and not see a rhino at all, they are after all rare, and living a wild existence.
Although two of the rhino on the property have been fitted with radio collars and so should be possible to locate, the rest are not. No sightings can be taken for granted. However, to my delight, during the four weeks I was at Mofemedi, I found that even in this short time the animals appeared to become more tolerant to our presence and the sightings got better and better. We became more adept at using the equipment and more familiar with where to look.
The thrill of seeing these prehistoric creatures never diminished, if anything it grew in intensity as I came to recognise individual animals, and gain a more sophisticated understanding of their condition and behaviour. Early sightings might be a fleeting ghost-like rush of something that resembled a massive grey sail galumphing through the undergrowth seen in the very periphery of vision, then there might be a sighting longer in duration but at a greater distance.
As the days and weeks passed we had amazing encounters, watching two adult rhino and a calf grazing by a waterhole, 35 minutes watching one solitary male from only perhaps 30 metres away, or the day when our telemetry signals confused us and we almost landed on top of an adult female and her calf who were hanging out together with the dominant male on the property. We were driving along a two-track adjacent to an internal fence when suddenly the great horn of the bull was visible from behind a bush. I don’t know who was more surprised, but he made a mock charge at us to make his feelings known – I say ‘mock’ because the charge didn’t follow through to impact, but it was an impressive show of displeasure. It was also a powerful illustration of how, despite the enormous size of these magnificent creatures, they can defy logic with their ability to be rendered invisible in the bush even if only 2 or 3 metres away. The rhino are all great characters. One in particular put a smile on my face the day we came across him in the bush. He was on his own, but full of bravado, stomping about, clearly very aware of us but not intimidated by our presence. He gave a great show of machismo and posturing, trotting across the road ahead of us with a great bluster of confidence… until two tiny birds flying from a tree startled him into abject panic, which sent him with a snort and a U-turn speeding off into the distance in a cloud of dust and disbelief!
Every sighting of the rhino was magnificent. However, a couple do stand out in my mind as especially remarkable and memorable. The very first day we headed out following the direction indicated by the telemetry until we reached a rocky outcrop. We then left the vehicle in favour of tracking on foot. (Despite what you might think, there is a strict policy of no off-road driving on the property, it destroys the terrain very quickly and displaces animals too). We scrambled over boulders moving as quickly and quietly as we could, until we found a vantage point on the rocks that gave a panoramic view across a huge hidden hollow that had been named, quaintly, the rhino garden.
The scene was innately beautiful, but it also provided a hideaway for an adult female rhino and her rather flighty calf. We must have been a good 300 metres from them, probably more (although I’m not great at judging distance), and way above them, but through binoculars you can clearly see them mooching around. The calf suckles briefly, but is skittish. The mother is more chilled but attentive to her calf. We sit rigid and silent. Even so, a slight movement of a foot displaces a minute chip of rock sending it bouncing down the rock face and immediately you can see the two react. Their hearing is amazing. Their eyesight is appallingly bad, yet they seem to miss nothing, an almost silent camera click produces an instantaneous response with their big ears swivelling to locate the sound, head raised and rhino ready to run. Even so, we were able to carry on observing the two rhino for quite some time, after a few minutes of our holding our breath they relaxed again and returned to grazing. It was picture perfect scene, and honestly, I found it quite moving. There is something about a young animal that is brim full of possibility.
Rhino are terribly endangered, they may yet become extinct in my lifetime, the statistics on poaching are terrifying – 668 rhino poached last year (2012) alone – this out of a total population for which estimates vary but the higher guess is only 20,000. The gestation period for a rhino is around 16 months, and females are not sexually mature until around 6 years old, but will typically only have one calf every four years. It is not a happy picture. Yet here and now, at this moment in time I can enjoy the sight of a mother and calf, and there seems at least a glimmer of hope. The way the calf moves is charming, she seems to gambol despite her monumental proportions, she is very much alive and alert and ready to take on the world! We crept away grinning from ear to ear, this project was going to be great!
One of the skills our guide offered was an ability to read the bush and anticipate what direction animals might move in. Often you will see a guide getting out of a vehicle and kicking up some dust. This is not out of frustration and boredom (well it might be, but it serves another purpose too) – they do so to establish wind direction. Just as rhino make particular use of their hearing, they also have an acute sense of smell, when tracking rhino you need to make sure the wind is in your favour.
On this morning, we’d sighted a rhino moving towards a section of Mopani trees, a favourite spot for shade and a scratch. Our guide set off at quite a pace on foot, and we followed in single file. He gestured a tree. I gulped a bit, I can’t remember how many years have passed since I last climbed a tree, and even if I could I would count it in decades. Nevertheless, I somehow scramble up, and wedge myself in a convenient spot where one of the bigger branches comes out from the trunk. I’m not especially athletic, and the tree isn’t that high, but even so I make a mental note that I should try out unexpected things more often, who knew I could still climb a tree? Result! My fellow volunteer is perched on an adjacent branch. We peer out, unsure what to expect next. Very quickly we hear some tramping through the bushes, these animals may be sensitive to sound, but they are far from silent themselves. They crash through the undergrowth, and have a great many snorts and huffs in their vocal repertoires! This rhino encounter is over in an instant, but astonishingly the rhino emerges from the bush, and comes directly underneath our tree. I could have jumped down on top of it had my senses temporarily deserted me, certainly it is within touching distance. The rhino immediately smells us I think, because it pauses, and then snorting, gallops off at some speed. I do snap a rather inadequate photo, but more importantly I’ve experienced the moment. Being so close to a wild animal of that size, that is so vanishingly rare, was a real privilege and a joy. I didn’t think anything else at Mofemedi could top that. In fact, whilst no other rhino encounter was so close, other sightings did match this experience but in different ways. Gaining a behavioural insight or just enjoying a longer more chilled sighting can bring you close to these remarkable animals too, just in a different sense, through insight rather than through proximity.
Rhinos are of course, the stars of the show here at Mofemedi. But they come with a whole habitat to explore. Mofemedi is based on an exquisitely beautiful property, with expansive views, gold rock, red dust and green vegetation. Here I also enjoyed the company of the friendly neighbourhood Nyala who hung around the camp in an optimistic vigil for any kitchen scraps. A hand reared antelope that though now released, remains bonded to people and seems to seek out human company. She was a great bin for veg peelings, but had not read the field guide that would presumably advise that pasta and bread are not a normal part of her diet. There were the tree frogs that had learned to exploit the camp lanterns. At first I thought they were trapped within them, but actually they choose to live there. No sooner are the lamps switched on then the frogs come out, the insects the light attracts providing them with easy pickings. The frogs though became prey themselves. At camp we saw an enormous boomslang snake about 1.5 metres long, and bright bright green it has been living in a tree at camp. This is one of the three most deadly snakes in Africa (the other two being the Black Mamba and the Puff Adder), though fortunately it is actually quite timid and to be bitten by one you’d have to go out of your way to provoke it, all the same it is impressive. We realise the thud we heard the night before would have been this snake, launching itself from a tree to prey on the tree frogs on the ground below as they were making their way to the water of the small swimming pool at camp.
Presumably because of the growing drought (the rains are nearly 3 months late this year) a magnificent sable antelope has also taken to visiting this pool for a drink. It is quite confident, and comes in an afternoon when the other volunteer and I are quietly reading; it drinks at its leisure and then moves away.
There are also lions at Mofemedi, again rescued and hand-reared; they are now imprinted on people and so too dangerous to be given the run of the land. However, they have an enormous enclosure with its own trees and vegetation in which to run and hide. They do rely though on being brought food, and on one memorable occasion we drove in to witness them falling on a fresh impala carcass and it was consumed within minutes. Memo to self, don’t mess with lions!
Mofemedi was a brilliant cocktail of animal encounters, set against the magnificent backdrop of an extraordinarily beautiful landscape. This was one of the most scenic and impressive places that I spent time at during my travels. The thrill of seeing a rhino and knowing it is also observing you never diminishes. The rhino are extraordinary, prehistoric, they almost look impossible when you see them up close. It is devastating to think how fragile the population is. The threat they face is very real, which is why programmes like Mofemedi are needed. When the number of rhino is so very few, protection of each individual becomes imperative for survival of the species as a whole. Rhino are huge, but endearing. For example, their terrible eyesight seems to have led to a sort of inverted body image. Rather sweetly, sensing your presence they will sometimes conceal themselves behind the flimsiest of twigs presuming this has rendered them invisible whilst they assess the situation. How can you witness that and not feel your heart melt? I hope that the work at Mofemedi will continue and extend, I hate to think that otherwise it may well be that the rhino all too soon become another case of ‘last chance to see’… We need some success stories to fight the very real threat of their extinction.
ACE Volunteer Mofemedi Rhino Recovery Initiative