Learning to track Rhino in South Africa

Rhino tracking in South Africa

Karongwe Game Reserve, Limpopo Province, South Africa.

OAG likes the fine art of animal tracking, but as the weather’s been ‘patchy’ in the UK so far this year, our flora and fauna seem to have had a bit of lie-in. So I found somewhere sunnier where a novice can learn to track something bigger than a sleepy weasel.

I’m in South Africa in search of the White Rhino, the theory being, that even I can spot the prints left by an animal weighing over a tonne.

After a short flying hop north from Johannesburg airport to Hoedspruit, and a two-hour drive northwest, I find myself standing with a group of would-be trackers at Karongwe Camp, listening to a safety brief from our ranger instructors.

Will, Margaux and JP work for Eco Training where the focus is on learning not luxury. Karongwe trains rangers, trackers, eco-experts and safari guides.


Margaux at Eco-training's Karongwe Camp, South Africa

Margaux at Eco-training’s Karongwe Camp, South Africa

The camp is basic; tents for sleeping in and a few open sided buildings for lectures and dining. At least the open-sided bit is upstairs. So far no Leopards have padded up top to check out what’s for supper, but Hippo and Lion regularly move through the camp at night.

Safaris are big business for the African tourist industry. And for people with the cash and cameras to get their fix of big game, Rhino are highly prized amongst the famous “Big Five”; the others being: Leopard, Lion, Elephant and Water Buffalo.

Africa’s struggling to accommodate the natural ranging territory of its wild life against the ‘march of civilisation’; so photographic safaris bring in much needed conservation revenue.

But behind the luxury safari lodges and ‘sundowner’ drinks by the waterholes, our hosts tell us that there’s a deadly serious war going on.

Ironically, it’s the creation of game reserves, and the necessary concentration of species within them, which has seen a dramatic increase in poaching – especially of Rhino.

It’s an emotive and high profile issue in the media worldwide. In nearby Kruger National Park, over 600 White Rhino were killed for their horns in the first half of last year. Why? Horn fetches twice the price of gold – in the region of $100,000 per kilo.

Will Lawson, our main instructor, and a Brit who’s made Africa his home (Editor’s note: he’s just become a researcher on BBC Springwatch), speaks with barely concealed anger at some of the reasons that Rhino horn has become even more prized in recent years.

In Vietnam, a politician went on TV claiming that drinking powdered Rhino horn – which is made mostly of Keratin, similar to a horse’s hoof – cured his cancer. Imagine the increase in demand.

As our collective jaw drops, it’s becoming clear that this is not going to be your average safari trip.

The point of Eco Training’s courses is to offer people a lot more than photographing the “Big Five”.

The company has taken a 28-day professional field guide course and developed a potted version for adventurous tourists keen to learn more. We’re getting a taster over a few days that will give us some basic knowledge of tracking, animal behaviour and the environment they live in. Much of this will be on foot, some of it at night.

I can’t wait. I think.

A Harvester Ant's home (and trap)

A Harvester Ant’s home (and trap)

After a first night of inexplicable noises that set my imagination running wild, we’re up early and out looking for signs of who exactly made those noises.

We’re on a familiarisation walk, not to search for Rhino just yet. As we file through the bush without talking, Will’s impressive knowledge has us hanging on every word. From Giraffe encounters to gathering us round the smallest blade of grass – he knows his stuff and it’s fascinating.

Will’s also an expert on Biomimicry, which studies how we can learn from millions of years of Mother Nature’s R&D. Check out this link for more information.

But we’re soon all too aware of just how unaware of our surroundings we are.

As we walk along a track, Will turns and asks if anyone saw anything unusual over the last 100m or so.

Karongwe is a game reserve of about 8,500 square hectares. Rough sandy tracks criss-cross a bush of scrub, trees such as Acacia, Marula, and Knob thorn, waterholes and dried up rivers. Did I see anything out of place? Don’t think so.

“No?” says Will; “earlier on I hid some items in the bush that don’t belong there. Go back along the track and this time look a little harder.”

And there’s one: a basketball, 10 metres into the scrub and embarrassingly easy to see when you’re actually looking.

Did we spot the hidden B-ball? Nope.

Did we spot the hidden B-ball? Nope.

The point is painfully well made, but Will tells us everyone takes time to acclimatise to the bush – especially those whose senses are blunted by living in urban environments. Does that include Twickenham, I ponder?

We learn to ‘soft focus’; to look through the bush without straining to see, scanning right to left, as it’s better for picking out anomalies. Predators pick out the eyes of their prey amidst the natural camouflage of the bush. I try to look everywhere, but without catching anyone’s eye.

As we take in the many snippets of information, some of it in Latin, we move through the bush, on the look out for animal tracks.

In the damp sand of a riverbed, we come across a set of perfect Leopard prints.  Unlike the Cheetah, the Leopard’s claws are retractable. I look up at the trees and wonder now if we’re being watched. All this anxiety is wearing me down.

Leopard prints

Leopard prints

Despite being three-toed ungulates of considerable mass, Will points out that a s

et of Rhino tracks, crossing a dirt road, have left only the faintest of marks in the hard packed dirt. They move with a balletic grace but can run at 40mph when the need to.

Our training has a particular aim in mind – to track and find Rhino. In just a few days we can’t hope to learn all the skills it takes trainee rangers months to learn and years to hone, but already we’re starting to get a sense of what it takes to be more “tuned into” the bush.

It’s a sobering message but in the game reserves at least, the fight is being taken to the poachers with gun battles; tracker dogs; and helicopters, all part of a deadly game of hide and seek.

But as with all ultra high value illicit businesses, it’s the desperately poor who risk and suffer most in this war. It seems that changing opinions about the true and benign properties of Rhino horn, and the value of preserving a species on the planet for over 14 million years, is the only way to stop this trade. That’s a tall order.

In this particular 8,500 hectares reserve, there are six Rhino. No matter how good your tracking skills, there’s an element of luck in finding them.

Land Rover, Karongwe, September, 2012We’re back out for the afternoon, onboard a Land Rover, criss-crossing the reserve looking for Rhino tracks over the road, we meet a small group of people on horseback. It’s a great way to see game: you cover more ground than on foot and make much less noise than a vehicle.

The ranger leading them has a rifle in a saddle scabbard, cowboy style. It’s a large calibre bolt-action weapon. It needs to be powerful enough to stop tonnes of charging Elephant or Rhino – at a range of 20 yards.

The riders have exciting news for us. No Rhino, but they’ve seen two young male Cheetahs make a kill and tuck in a few hundred metres away in dense bush.

Will goes in to action straightaway, putting us all into single file and under strict orders not to make a sound. Circling downwind of where we think the Cheetah are, we’re straining all our newly awakened senses to try and see them feasting on the unfortunate Impala.

Cheetahs are amongst the most endangered animals in Africa. They come from such a small gene pool, and are adapted so specifically for their environment and prey, that conservationists fear for their future

The Cheetah brothers here in Karongwe however, are eating the rump first and taking their time about it. They don’t have many rivals who could take it from them, but there are plenty happy to close in when they move off.

Cheetah brothers feeding

Cheetah brothers feeding

But it’s time for us to move off and admit that for today, the Rhino have eluded us.

As the sun goes down, we head out again in Land Rovers to find animals more active at night.

Using powerful spot lamps, Margeaux and husband JP, sweep the bush on either side of us as we tick along tracks that close in to the point where thorny Acacia branches scrape the side of the vehicle. We pick out the eyes of Kudu antelope staring at us from deep in the bush, and as the lights sweep upwards we realize that Leopards might also be watching from the trees above.

Giraffe silhouette

Giraffe silhouette

Beyond the piercing beams of our lights, the bush at night seems a forbidding place, where our dulled senses and poor natural defences place us way down the food chain.

As we wade a small river, Margeaux stops the Land Rover and shines her lamp into the rushes alongside. We hear the crashing sounds of something moving: something big enough not worry that it’s making a lot of noise.

“Hippo” says Margeaux. Elephant can move in ghost-like silence; Hippos don’t care who knows they’re coming. It’s hard to tell how far away it is but the reeds are dense and close by, so we move off to avoid a potentially nasty confrontation.

Next day and we’re back on the trail of the elusive Rhino. Will is checking dung, often picking it up – herbivore dung only: it’s harmless to handle – to check for content and freshness. He invites us to try handing it ourselves.

Will checks dung

Will checks dung

He spots a place where Rhino have been lying down on the road – no doubt with their ears to the ground so they can clear off when they hear our rover. Patience is a virtue in the bush.

Sensing our disappointment, Will demonstrates how the Rhino was lying and how it hauls itself upright. For a biped, he does a pretty good impression, which will have to do for now.

And then we see them. Not deep in the bush, but blending into the trees and grass, a few yards from the edge of the track. Four White Rhino: two young dating couples, we’re told.

Rhino are very territorial and hierarchical. If you’re a young male you’ve got to work hard to find some space and a potential mate. And here we are, interrupting a teen afternoon out.


Rhino - at last

Rhino – at last

The Land rover engine idles gruffly, as we sit and watch what they’ll do next. They don’t seem too alarmed. To a certain extent, they are habituated to being gawped at within this protected game reserve. Our camera shutters are clicking furiously and I contemplate how they’d behave if this were a hunting game reserve.

Just as tourists bring in revenue, so do big game ‘trophy’ hunters. Sad: but true. It’s possible to buy a licence to shoot a Rhino in South Africa. It costs up to $150,000 for a White Rhino; more for Black Rhino as they’re rarer…

This doesn’t sit well with many people, but it’s a managed process that on balance means more animals and their habitats are preserved. Poachers have no such discrimination. They want to saw off as much horn as they can get.

We ask, why rangers don’t dart Rhino and saw off their horns. Surely this would stop poachers. While the horn is far from being a vital organ, it IS vital to the animal’s natural behaviour and social interaction. Removing them would undermine millions of years of evolved patterns of behaviour and breeding. Some efforts are being made to impregnate horns with a substance that makes them harmful to subsequent human consumption, but the war against poachers continues on many fronts.

We hear how even some vets and helicopter pilots have been prosecuted for aiding poaching operations. It seems that the rewards outweigh the risks for some.

Our courting couples trot down the road towards a watering hole and we dawdle after them. The lake contains a large ‘pod’ of Hippos. They are not happy to see the Rhino and lunge towards them whenever a Rhino ventures to the water’s edge for a drink.

Rhino at water hole

Rhino at water hole

Unfair and a bit mean but this is life in the wild. They’ll work something out, besides we’re not in a position to intervene – on any level.

Finding Rhino was tough but it was well worth the wait. Nothing compares to seeing these prehistoric hulking creatures going about their daily lives in the open wilds of South Africa.

Eco-training offer a seven or 14 day “Eco-quest” course in South Africa, as well as other courses, such as bird-watching or wild life photography, in Botswana and Kenya.

The Eco-Quest course is aimed at those who want a taste of the Field Guide course – perhaps to enter the profession; or, for those more hardy and adventurous types (often, they’re OAG readers too), to get a much more than photos and sun tans. The course and the experts who run them give you an insight into the knowledge, beauty and adventure to be found in South Africa.

Visit Eco-training’s website at http://www.ecotraining.co.za/ for more information.

Will Robson on Beacon Rock with small stuffed Leopard.

Will Robson on Beacon Rock with small stuffed Leopard.