The Rhino Whisperer
Thom wakes early and since it was Bob and Christine's anniversary we wanted to have their tent set up for them. They had upgraded the night before but there were no rooms available for our second night so we upgraded them anyway by setting up their tent for them and decorating it with Thom's birthday balloon.
After breakfast we are greeted with two open Jeeps which we will take to go see White Rhinos.
The Happy Anniversary Couple:
The Happy (someone just had a birthday yesterday) couple...lol
Ian Harmer is our main tour leader and honestly the best guide we had on our entire trip. I can't stress enough how passionate and knowledgeable this man was and how fortunate we were to have him for the next two days as well!
The Harmer family has lived in the Matabeleland area since the early 1890’s having arrived with the first Settlers into "Rhodesia." We hop in the jeep with him and off we go.
We are heading toward The Matobo National Park, which forms the core of the Matobo or Matopos Hills, an area of granite kopjes and wooded valleys commencing some 35 kilometres south of Bulawayo, southern Zimbabwe. The hills were formed over 2 billion years ago with granite being forced to the surface, this has eroded to produce smooth "whaleback dwalas" and broken kopjes, strewn with boulders and interspersed with thickets of vegetation. Mzilikazi, founder of the Ndebele nation, gave the area its name, meaning 'Bald Heads'. I have pictures of that but those come later....
Part of this area is a conservation reserve for the rhinos. We arrive at this road that seems to head into the bush. Standing there are two men with riffles. Ian speaks to them and then informs us that there are about 6 rhino not too far from here. The men with the riffles join us. Now here I'm thinking "Cool these guys are here to protect us in case one of those rhinos starts to charge us." However, we would soon learn that they were not there to protect us, or at least not just us but rather they were there more to protect the rhinos from poachers.
We arrive at a clearing and Ian asks us to sign a waiver and the goes over some precautionary instructions like
1) Don't run away from a rhino, hide behind a tree or rock. They can run up to 30-35mph in 30 sec and weigh well a friggn lot!
2) crouch when approaching a rhino and walk in a single line slowly. They have poor eyesight so bright colors or things that can stand out are not advisable to wear.
3) No flash and no GPS on anything. Poachers are now using GPS on cameras and phones to track the rhinos
4) If Ian yells "RUN" ignore all the other rules and run to a tree and climb up it and pray the rhino goes somewhere else and you don't get stuck up there for hours waiting for it to leave...
So with all that we are off on foot and I am sooo nervous!!!
You are out there totally exposed and I don't know what kind of trees Ian was talking about but there aren't as many as I'd like to see given the speech we were just given.
We see the white rhinos in the distance and then split into two groups following our leaders couched in single file.
Crouched down to carefully take some photos
White rhinos aren’t white and black rhinos aren’t black.
The white rhino’s name is taken from the Afrikaans word “wyd,” which means “wide” and describes its mouth. Early English settlers in South Africa misinterpreted the "wyd" for "white".
Black rhinos probably got their name from the dark wet mud in their wallows that made them appear black in color. Both species are essentially gray in color. The black rhino though is known for being way more aggressive than the white and it would not be safe to bring a group as large as our this close to one of them.
They stand as we approach only 100 yards away!
Ian is very familiar with the group. It is a pregnant females and some younger males.
Ian "talks to the " calling their names and blowing reassuring grunts. All of this calms the group. (Rhinos and the nervous tourists!)
We move closer our group only 50 feet away!
Ian talks to us about the poaching problem and the rhino's plight all while observing and monitoring any signs that would merit cause for alarm. (And while smoking a cigarette...lol)
Rhino horns are not made of bone, but of keratin, the same material found in your hair and fingernails. A rhino’s horn is not attached to its skull. It is actually a compacted mass of hairs that continues to grow throughout the animal’s lifetime, just like our own hair and nails. In knowing this you can see why it is even more incredibly sad and horrific what poachers are doing to Rhinos.
There are local people who are very poor and might have families to feed. These people are desperate. When you add rich people with too much money and a market in Asia that believes Rhino horn cures cancer or works like Viagra all you get are the Rhinos on the endangered list. Oh and don't forget all the corruption in the governments as well. Rhino horn is worth more than elephant ivory. It is worth more than gold.
And it is a war zone out there! Poachers are now being supplied by international criminal gangs with sophisticated equipment to track and kill rhinos. Hence no gps. Often they use a tranquiliser gun to bring the rhino down and hack of its horn leaving the rhino to wake up and bleed to death very painfully and slowly. Poachers are also often armed with guns making them very dangerous for the anti-poaching teams who put their lives on the line to protect rhinos.
Rhinos were once abundant throughout Africa and Asia with an approximated worldwide population of 500 000 in the early twentieth century. However, despite intensive conservation efforts, poaching of this iconic species is dramatically increasing, pushing the remaining rhinos closer and closer towards extinction.
Rhino poaching has reached a crisis point, and if the killing continues at this rate, we could see rhino deaths overtaking births in 2016-2018, meaning rhinos could go extinct in the very near future.
And the scary thing is the scarcity of rhinos today and the corresponding intermittent availability of rhino horn only drives the price higher, and intensifies the pressure on the declining rhino populations.
Back to us for a moment...
After some time Ian says we can move closer for a photo with the Rhinos behind us, maybe 30 feet! I immediately start recalling all those times I watched someone on those shows "When animals attack" and had said things like "Serves those stupid humans right for getting that close to take a picture of a grizzly bear! What you didn't think it would mind you and your camera up in it's personal space right before it mauled the crap out of your face?" I mean let's be honest, I thought being out of a moving jeep was pretty brave and stupid by some parties to begin with...lol
And with that thought in mind I was not inclined to raise my hand to be the first to step away from the group and put my back to the Rhinos. But can we all take a guess at who was? Yup! Thom would have gone and kissed the pregnant one if he was told it would have been ok. Ha!
And he was rewarded by being one of the only ones to have a picture with the rhino looking right at us because being first they all picked up their heads and ears to say " Hey what's that!"
But Ian was taking the pictures and didn't seem worried at all. So one by one people went out for a pic until finally I was convinced we would be saved from turning up on a "What not to do when on a safari" buzzfeed list.
Notice I have only one knee down as to be sure I can still get up to run incase the faces of the people taking our picture turn to sheer panic....lol
It was so AMAZING!!!! Another great highlight of the whole trip for sure!
Now you may notice that these rhinos have had their horns cut down. This is to protect them. It is still a controversial issue. That and decriminalizing rhino horn. You can read more about that here if you are interested:
But keep in mind that it is easy to sit back here in the Western world and make judgements on what is good or bad then it is to be there and on the ground and live with what is happening every day. Before I went I wasn't exactly keen on the idea of legalizing rhino horn or the cutting of them but after speaking with the people who are giving up their lives every day to protect them and the fight they are up against even with their own government just to punish the offenders who are caught...well my views have changed for sure.
Anyway this was just the morning of that day and we were off to see cave paintings and spend some time in a village. More in the next post.