Thursday, June 21, 2012

Desert Rhino...

This was another amazing, where to start.  It was very dark and freezing cold as we set off at 5:30am with our trackers in the lead.  We traveled for about 2 hours over rough roads as we finally reached the rhino habitat.  En route we spotted a male lion making his way up valley at a very fast pace.  We got a clear view of him as he paused to look at us and then quickly veered off into a side valley.  Great luck!  Then we caught up to the trackers on a bluff above a large riverine valley with lots of green foliage a few pools of water here and there.  It looked like perfect rhino habitat as it was surrounded by rolling grasslands and lots of milk weed plants which rhinos love to feed on but is very poisonous to other species.   In fact elephants roll in the milk weed to help kill parasites on their skin.  The trackers led us up a side valley and soon spotted a mother and calf moving up the valley and of the ridge.  We then started on foot to find them over the rocky terrain.  The key with tracking a rhino on foot is to stay down wind of them and to be very quiet.  rhinos have excellent sense of smell and hearing but their eyesight is very poor.  Luckily the wind was in our favor and we were able to approach them behind a hill so that we were undetected.  The trackers emphasized that it is critical not to stress the rhino so they are very strict about viewing distances and time spent in their presence.  We silently approached on foot single file behind the tracker until he indicated that we should stop about 300 feet away.  From here we had great views of the mom and her calf eating the milkweed plants and I was happy that we we not disturbing them at all.  Having followed the rules we got into a great position and spent about 10 minutes observing them with binoculars and taking photos.  

The desert rhino is a black rhino and there are only 4,500 rhino left on the planet.  The majority of black rhinos live in Namibia and the area we were in was another partnership conservancy with the local people and Save the Rhino Trust.  Black rhinos have distinct features from white rhino which are much more plentiful (23,000 total) and more widely distributed.  Black rhinos are actually brownish grey in color and the main distinction is the hooked lip used for browsing and a small hump behind their necks.  The front horn is longer than the rear horn.  With a white rhino the two horns can be equal length and the mouth is wider, in fact the name white rhino came from a distortion of the Dutch description of "wide" mouth rhino.  The name black rhino just followed to indicate the different type of rhino.  White rhinos are not white in color but grey mud colored and they are grazers usually found in the open grasses.  Poaching is a huge problem with rhinos because rhino horn is consider medicine in places like Vietnam.  The horn is made out of keratin just like our fingernails.  It grows very slowly.  Some conservationist believe that rhino hors should be preemptively cut off the rhino to eliminate poaching.  Others believe that rhinos horns should be sold legally and controlled by the state and conservation groups working together.  There are huge stockpiles of rhino horns in places like South Africa and Zimbabwe that could be sold legally to try to meet the need according to those in favor of this method.  Personally I don't like either scenario and feel that we need to work on two fronts:  

1.  Educate the people of South East Asia that rhino horns have no scientific proof of being effective (which is true) - this will take time and be difficult but over a generation I am hopeful the old ways and beliefs will die out.

2.  Beef up security at transit ports, crack down on organized crime, and fund more anti poaching patrols

Every day a rhino is poached.  We lost 235 rhinos in South Africa alone last year.  Most a poachers coming from Zimbabwe and Mozambique through porous borders.  There are four types of poachers:  a small number due it for personal bush meat, a larger number due it for commercial bush meat, then you get professional poachers that come for the rhino horns with sophisticated techniques including helicopters and distribution networks using corrupt government and wildlife officials.  Probably the worst trend is that organized crime from China and other areas now operating poaching syndicates.  The situation is dire and I urge everyone to educate themselves and get involved to help out.  The April issue of Africa Geographic is completely dedicated to rhinos and an excellent exposé on all the issues related to rhinos including poaching, habitat, specific traits, populations, distribution, and details on the four species of rhino which include black, white, Indonesian, and Asian...

I am happy to be partners with Save the Rhino Trust and to offer my guests the opportunity to see these creatures in the wild and support the cause.  

I forgot to mention hat on he drive back to camp we came across 2 more desert elephant which are normally not found here so our luck has been extraordinary over the past few days...

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