After three days on the road we were getting used to our early wake ups. And today there was a great reason to be up, dressed and coffee-fueled by 6am, we were going rhino tracking on foot.
Somkhanda Game Reserve in Zululand is a 12,000 hectare community owned reserve and the first of its kind to become part of the endangered Black Rhino Range Expansion Programme, which released a number of black rhino onto the reserve in order to promote their breeding and expand their range. The land itself is owned by the Gumbi Tribe as a result of a series of successful land claims and was handed over to the community in 1998.
We joined the WildlifeACT rhino monitoring team and African Insight Tourism Manager Riley Bouchet on a bush walk to see if we could locate any of the white rhinos on the reserve. The reserve is well stocked with wildlife; sightings of impala, blue wildebeest, zebra and the normally shy nyala are frequent. There are leopard, spotted and brown hyaena and around 40 giraffe on the reserve, we saw a herd of 6 on our drive out. Birdlife is prolific too and we were also lucky enough to see a pair of Verraux’s Eagle Owl fledglings perched high on a branch basking in early morning sun to get warm.
Both the black and white rhino on the reserve are monitored daily using radio telemetry or, as was the case for us this morning, by good old-fashioned ground tracking. Zama Ncube, WildlifeACT’s rhino monitor team leader, eventually gave up trying to get a signal from the radio collars and located some tracks of a white rhino and her calf that were fresh enough for us to follow.
After nearly an hour walking through the dry and somewhat thick bush, temperatures were soaring and the tracks were getting harder to follow. We were contemplating giving up when there was suddenly a loud crack. Crouching low to the dusty riverbed we caught a fleeting glimpse of the mother and calf that we’d hoped to find. All too quickly they were gone. Zama told us that although this mom was usually pretty laid back, they had darted her the previous week to de-horn and then fit her radio collar and so understandably she would now be more nervous.
After a poaching crisis where 4 rhino were lost in quick succession, Somkhanda took the difficult decision to de-horn all their rhino. Though this is not an ideal solution, it can prove to be an effective deterrent to poachers. Somkhanda have also fitted foot collars to all eligible rhino as well as giving ear notches to the younger individuals and collecting DNA samples. All of these measures help to better understand and monitor the rhino to protect them for generations to come.
There is something extremely special about walking through the bush instead of experiencing it from the comfort of your vehicle. The sights and sounds are heightened and you are alert to the potential of what could be hiding behind the next bush. Sadly we did not come across the rhinos again for the rest of our walk but nevertheless it was an amazing start to the day. Hot and hungry for our breakfast, we climbed into our vehicle feeling like we’d truly experienced the best of nature and we were on top of the world.