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Day 30

Rhino Conservation

sunny 38 °C
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Time goes so quickly that it is easy to fall behind on blogging. Which is exactly what I have done. The days have been full on, starting with our 5am wake up call for morning safari. By the time we have finished evening safari and dinner it's near 9.30pm and these oldies are knackered.

So let's get to it. Not many pictures in this blog I am afraid.

Kwandwe is similar to Welgevonden in many ways. Once upon a time the big 5 called this area home but then hunting changed that in the 1800s and land was then used for farming goat and ostrich. The last two cheetah's were killed in 1888. Antelope and others remained but the big game died out. Kwandwe is located in the Eastern Cape in the Great Fish River Valley, about 2 hours north east of Port Elizabeth (now called Gqeberha). The nearest town, formerly Grahamstown, is Makhanda. In 1998 the dream was to return a piece of land to its former glory and rehabilitate it with wildlife and Kwandwe is now home to the big 5 plus cheetah, woodpecker, cape grysbok, black wildebeest, crown eagles and blue crane, the national bird. Kwandwe literally means the place of the Blue Crane. When I say a piece of land, I am talking about 65,000 acres. This will soon expand to over 85,000 acres.

The whole reserve is owned by one family, the Chouest Family from the USA.

With the primary aim of protecting black and white rhino, the Kwandwe Rhino Conservation Trust was settled in order to raise funds for rhino conservation strategies in the Great Fish River Valley. There are countless NGOs set up around the world to protect rhinos but Kwandwe discovered that after admin expenses, a $75,000 donation would mean that they only saw $25,000 of that. They needed to ensure that all donations went directly to helping the species and not spent on layers of bureaucracy. The Trust was born.

Today, Susan and I have paid for a conservation experience with rhino specialists, Craig and Nicky. Effectively, we are joining them to witness them at work, not as a sightseeing tour. Our main objective today is to find two sub adults that have not been spotted for over 2 weeks. I am pretty sure my parents probably referred to me as a sub adult at times, especially in my co-operate teens years! There are no alarm bells at this stage. It is usually after about 3 years when mum will boot her calf into the big wide world as she prepares to give birth to her next offspring. It takes sub adults some time to find their own turf.

Craig, whom I would guess is in his mid thirties, has a Masters in environmental studies. In the olden days he would take his note pad and pen, together with his senses and go searching for rhino tracks and then pursue those across the reserve. It would be a full day in hot conditions and he might not always locate any rhino. Now a days, technology has come to the rescue of both Craig and the rhino. Powerful drones travel out up to 8km from our location and with heat seeking technology can locate any animal some hundreds meters below. He is then able to focus in on camera and determine not only the animal but the zoom is so powerful, it can identify the markings on its ears (assuming it is a rhino). Rhinos on the reserve are not given pet names but rather a series of letters and numbers. Each rhino is given a unique ear clip from which they can identity it from great heights, without freaking it/them out. To view this in real time on the screen is amazing.

Here is Craig seeing what the drone sees plus the view from one of our look out points;

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Technology helps both poacher and protector. But in terms of protecting, huge assistance has been given. A collar was developed at a University in South Africa that not only is able to track the location of a rhino but is solar panelled and so there is not risk of battery run out. The most wonderful aspect of the technology though is that it is AI driven. Sensors and other components help understand the emotions of the rhino. It can determine when it is calm, in heat, anxious or even severely distressed. In the event that a rhino is shot by a poacher, the collar will send out a red alert to the team and in less than 15 minutes anywhere in the reserve, a drone can arrive at the location of the animal. If it is indeed a poacher, the heat sensors will track the poacher and a helicopter is deployed to the scene. There is no escape for the poacher. In the past, it might be 5 days before the reserve even know that a rhino is in distress, or worse shot.

There are 3 very large poaching syndicates operating in South Africa, acting much like a drug cartel. Demand has now shifted from China to emerging far eastern countries, particularly Vietnam and Thailand. Rather than for medicinal purposes, the greater demand is now for the prestige of having a rhino horn adorning your entrance way. Before the collars had been introduced they received information that poachers were coming for the rhino on the reserve. Now we see the relevance of me sharing that the reserve has one owner. With one simple Whats App they were able to communicate with the family. These collars are not cheap and there was no guarantee of raising funds in time. The owner gave the go ahead to buy ten collars and the developer rushed up to the reserve and with Craig they worked over 2 days erecting communication towers and fitting the most 10 most vulnerable rhinos with collars. They flew the helicopter constantly and made a huge public song and dance as to what they were doing. It worked, the poachers caught wind and moved on by.

Now, most rhinos over 5 years old have been fitted with the collars. That is the age at which their legs no longer grow wider.

It is a sad fact that 90% of poaching is usually an inside job. Selling information and turning a blind eye. Nearly 60% of all remaining rhinos are now found on private reserves such as Welgevonden and Kwandwe. National Parks are finally working with private reserves to collaborate on conservation methods but the provincial parks have a dark record. Craig told me some alarming stories which he asked me not to share, so I won't. Safe to say that it is sad what some will do for personal financial gain.

You might ask whether it is sensible of me to share the details I have. We asked Craig and Nicky the same thing. Rather than try and keep their rhino population on the reserve secret, they openly market the fact. With the drones, helicopters, large K9 units and armed security patrol, they are doing their best to keep the poachers out. The only way then to help the cause is with guests visiting the lodge and/or making donations to the Trust. They are proud of the work they are doing and want the world to come and witness the majesty of these great creatures. Their breeding has been so successful that they have been able to relocate rhino to other appropriate reserves.

In fact, one way of promoting Kwandwe is by entertaining travel agents whom will then spread the word. Craig relayed a story of one day when an agent needed a bathroom break. From the bushes came an almighty commotion then suddenly the agent with her pants still unfastened levitated from the privacy of the bushes straight into the vehicle without ever touching the ground. She was immediately followed by a charging bull rhino. The rhino was not after her but instead, had picked up the scent of a cow in heat. It was unfortunate that said agent had chosen her comfort break right in its path. Well it made me laugh!! Just imagine.

Ultimately, we did not locate the two sub adults. If they haven't found them in 2 or 3 days, they'll send up the helicopter. But we learned an incredible amount about conservation and were so glad of the experience. We have been totally privileged to see many rhino across two reserves. We cannot let the wonderful work of so many dedicated people go to waste. National Parks inflate their numbers to attract tourists, by all accounts, which means that there are likely less than 10,000 rhinos, black or white, remaining in the wild.

These photos were taken during the trip and not today but show the majestic white (1st 2) and black.

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Finally I must stress that the Foundation doesn't ignore other animals. Poaching of lion for their teeth and elephant for their tusk remains a very real issue and huge support is directed there too.

Today was an extremely positive day in regard to conservation.

Posted by NeedhamSA2024 08:33 Archived in South Africa

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