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White rhinos of Sabi Sands

Rhinos may be one of the iconic Big 5* but sightings are becoming harder to come by. My early safari experiences with rhinoceri were in East Africa where the temperamental black rhino still rains supreme, even though, due to poaching, they have suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers.

Rhinos are one of the Big 5 game animals sought after by hunters and photographers alike

Rhinos are one of the Big 5 game animals sought after by hunters and photographers alike

I remember making a special trip in 1985 to Meru National Park to see, what were then, Kenya’s only white rhinos. Even then the northern white rhinoceros was all but extinct. The 5 or 6 rhino that we saw, which had been translocated there from South Africa, were all southern white rhinos – a different subspecies.

Enjoying a good wallow

Enjoying a good wallow

These animals were under guard 24 hours a day. As a result they weren’t afraid of humans. We were allowed to walk with them and pat them as they grazed. They were just like a small herd of cows. Just 3 years later they were all dead. Killed by poachers along with the brave men who guarded them.

On the road to extinction?

On the road to extinction?

I remembered this encounter when we came across five white rhinos on our first game drive in Sabi Sands. Four of them made up the main group and the fifth animal, a male, was grazing a short distance away.

A mother and her calf graze together in Sabi Sands

A mother and her calf graze together in Sabi Sands

This particular group of the pachyderms seemed to be happy to continue feeding around our vehicles. Others that we met merely tolerated our presence and would move away from the vehicles if they had a chance. A healthy fear of humans may help these animals to survive a little longer although, in the end, nothing can protect them from a poacher’s bullet.

Some of the animals preferred to keep their distance from us

Some of the animals preferred to keep their distance from us

The rhinos in Sabi seemed to be much bigger than the ones I remember from Kenya but that may just be my failing memory. Adult males can reach a height of 1.85m (6 feet) and weigh up to 1.7 tonnes. Some of the animals we saw were close to that size. It was awe-inspiring!

The wide lip of a white rhino helps it to graze

The wide lip of a white rhino helps it to graze

All the rhinos that we found in the park were white ones. They came in a variety of colours depending on what they have been rolling in, so the name is a misnomer. The “white” comes from a mis-anglicisation of the Afrikaan’s word “weit” which means wide and describes the difference between the square mouth of the white rhino and the more pointed lip of the black. This adaptation helps the white rhinos to feed as they mainly eat grass, the only rhino to do so. (It’s black cousin uses its more pointed lip when it browses for leaves from bushes.)

The white is the only sub-species of rhino that grazes

The white is the only sub-species of rhino that grazes

The southern white rhinoceros may not look quite as prehistoric as its Asian cousins but they can all trace their ancestry back 5 million years.

They have been around for 5 million years but can they survive the next few?

They have been around for 5 million years but can they survive the next few?

The white is the most populous of the rhino species left on Earth but there was a time, at the end of the 19th Century, when it was thought to have been hunted to extinction. In 1895, however, a small population of fewer than 100 individuals was discovered in Kwazulu-Natal. The 20,000 or so wild white rhinos that exist today are their descendants. Unfortunately, in spite of this conservation success story, the species is under threat once more, due to the current epidemic of poaching.

The white rhino is a conservation success story

The white rhino is a conservation success story

Poaching has been fuelled by an increase in demand from countries like Vietnam, where people use the horn as a status symbol (of their new-found wealth) or believe it has medicinal properties. Only when all humankind realises that rhino horn is no different to their fingernails and that it will not cure cancer or impotency, or whatever miracle use that has been attributed to it, will there be a chance of reducing demand. Let’s hope that realisation happens before it is too late for this iconic species.

Does this calf have a future?

Does this calf have a future?

Many of the facts included in this blog were obtained from the WWF website.

* The Big 5 (African elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, lion and leopard) were originally the five animals that hunters most wanted to kill on safari. Now, they are often the animals that tourists most want to see.

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Worth more alive?

Last Saturday Kenya burned 105 tonnes of ivory and 1.35 tonnes of rhino horn. The ivory came from the tusks of 6700 elephants. If they had stood trunk to tail they would have formed a line 30 miles (50 kilometres) long. Has the Kenyan Government played into the hands of the poachers by pushing up the price of ivory, as some have claimed, or has it made a bold statement about its long-term intentions? The message it wants to send out to the world is that the elephant is #WorthMoreAlive than dead. Has it succeeded?

There can be no doubt about the publicity that the event has generated. It has featured in TV news bulletins around the world and it is all over social media. The burn has been praised by many environmental and conservation organisations but it has also been criticised by some conservationists who believe that a legitimate trade in ivory and rhino horn has an essential part to play, if poaching is to be stopped.

According to the BBC, the ivory burnt in Kenya had a reputed street value of £70 million ($100 million). Wouldn’t it have been better to have sold the ivory and spent the money on preventing poaching, as some have suggested?

The figures

Accurate figures about elephant populations and poaching are hard to find, with some interested groups picking numbers that reinforce their own particular views. Some reckon that around 20,000 African elephants are poached each year while others put the figure at more than 30,000. Either way, this is not a sustainable loss from the (generally agreed) population of between 450,000 and 500,000 elephants currently living wild in the continent.

It is thought that there were around 1.3 million elephants in Africa in 1979 when they were being poached at a rate of 75,000100,000 each year. This was clearly unsustainable and so CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) effectively banned the trade in ivory in 1989 by putting African elephants onto Appendix 1, the list of the most endangered animals and plants.

The number of elephants being poached fell significantly after this. The ban was weakly enforced originally, with governments and officials in many countries complicit in perpetuating the trade. Poaching levels did fall, however, although corruption continues to play a major role in the problem. I haven’t been able to find any figures for the number of elephants killed after the ban was implemented but, given that we are told that the number of elephants killed illegally between 2007 and 2014 doubled, and we know that the number of deaths in the latter year was between 20,000 and 30,000, it would be reasonable to assume that the figure was around 10,000 – 15,000, a fall of 80 – 90%.

The argument for permitting governments to licence the sale of ivory and rhino horn

Supporters of a limited trade argue that increasing the supply of ivory to the market would drive the price down, making it less attractive to criminals, while at the same time raising much needed funds for some of the poorest nations in the World. They suggest, too, that increasing the supply of ivory from legal sources would decrease demand for illegally sourced tusks. In 1999 and 2008 CITES bowed to pressure from certain African countries to lift the ban and permit one-off sales. Immediately after these events, the number of elephants killed by poachers fell, giving credence to the argument that permitting limited sales would reduce the threat from poaching.

The argument against ever permitting these products to be sold

Those opposed to any trade in ivory and rhino horn point out that the argument above, about demand, might be true if the size of the market was constant, but there is a growing middle class in China and the Far East with an apparently insatiable appetite for ivory products, meaning that demand is increasing. There is a body of opinion that believes that increasing the supply of ivory further increases that demand. This is backed up by the fact that, a couple of years after CITES permitted sales of ivory, the number of elephants killed by poachers increased. In fact, after the 2008 sale the numbers doubled. And that figure has been increasing ever since. Also, they point to the fall in the number of elephants being poached after CITES introduced the ban in 1989, saying this is evidence that the ban has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of elephants, since then.

What happens in practice?

In Africa opinion is divided. East African countries tend to support a total ban, while many southern African countries oppose it. It is worth noting that those countries that oppose a total ban, generate considerable revenues from hunting.

Tourists require a greater financial investment than hunters

Tourists require a greater financial investment than hunters

Kenya, in burning the ivory, has implied that it will oppose any future attempts to permit one-off sales. It had considered, therefore, that its stockpile was worthless and keeping it was an expensive waste of money and resources. (While it existed, the stockpile had to be guarded to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.)

Some would argue that Kenya can afford to do this because it has a huge tourist industry, worth £1.6 billion ($2.35 billion), about 2.5% of its GDP, in 2014. The industry employs more than half a million people (about 2.5% of Kenya’s adult population). To them the ivory is definitely worth more alive.

Other countries are not so sure that the same argument applies in their cases. Kenya’s tourist industry evolved throughout the 20th Century. Other countries are starting from scratch or restarting after periods of conflict. Tourists these days have high expectations. Mass tourism involves a huge investment in infrastructure and people. Lodges have to be built, water and electricity have to be provided, sewage has to be dealt with, roads need to be maintained, staff have to be trained, and so on.

Many places have discovered, however, that they can improve their profits by providing a smaller number of tourists with a more expensive, exclusive, luxury experience. However, this still costs a lot to set up.

Others have found that they can charge even more money to an even smaller number of people by permitting hunting on their land. They can make a living by having a smaller operation, with simpler and hence cheaper camps. This income is threatened if the killing of certain animals is made illegal or, when such killing is permitted, if foreign hunters are unable to take their trophies home with them because of bans in transporting products from endangered wildlife.

Was Kenya right to burn the ivory and, if so, can other countries do the same?

Many of the people who run hunting operations are opposed to Kenya’s action. They argue that the money they make from rich hunters finances their conservation and breeding programmes. Banning the sales of ivory and rhino horn, they say, would put them out of business and hence increase the chance that elephants will die out in the wild rather than reducing it.

Personally, I think that they’re wrong. I believe that the Kenyan model is the way forward. It takes more effort and more investment but the evidence, that permitting the sales of ivory increases poaching, is so overwhelming that the alternative would inevitably lead to a world without elephants and rhinos. That world would be a poorer place, both financially and in people’s experiences.

The World would be a poorer place if elephants became extinct

The World would be a poorer place if elephants became extinct

Permitting a limited trade in wildlife products produces a smokescreen behind which the illegal trade can flourish. If there is a system whereby legally obtained products are certificated, then those certificates can be made available to the illegal trade too, through corruption, theft or forgery, making it much more difficult to identify the illegal products.

This is why other countries have to take a similar stance to Kenya. Ivory traders need to know that there will never again be any legal sales of these products to help them conceal movements of their own stockpiles.

To be fair to them, other countries have been burning their stockpiles. In March Malawi set fire to 2.6 tonnes of ivory, having initially been prevented from doing so by Tanzania, a country with its own massive poaching problem (it lost two thirds of its elephants in just five years). Last year, Ethiopia, Congo, Mozambique, the US and even China burnt some of their stockpiles too.

Mozambique belatedly recognised that continuing to store confiscated ivory is a high-risk strategy. Last year it very publically announced the confiscation of 1.3 tonnes of ivory and rhino horn (the rhino is extinct in Mozambique so these, almost certainly, had been poached across the border, in South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park) only to have some of the rhino horns stolen from the police compound less than a fortnight later.

Rhino horn where it should be found - on the end of a rhino's nose

Rhino horn where it should be found – on the end of a rhino’s nose

In the end, however, the only way to stop poaching is to reduce the demand for ivory and rhino horn. Reducing demand, reducing human–elephant conflict and managing the destruction caused by large herds of elephants are beyond the scope of this blog, but they are major issues that can’t be ignored, so I will return to them in the future.

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Idube Game Reserve

Our drive from Johannesburg had taken longer than expected, mainly due to roadworks on the N4 but, at 3pm, we still arrived at Idube Lodge in good time for the afternoon game drive. To our surprise lunch was still being served. Game lodges work to a different timetable from the rest of the world.

Idube, which is Shangaan (the local language) for Zebra, is one of the smaller reserves that make up Sabi Sands Wildtuin in South Africa. Like all the reserves we visited, Idube only caters for a small number of guests, giving it an intimate atmosphere. The staff there were the friendliest that we came across on our trip. The other reserves had friendly staff too but Idube’s somehow made us feel more at home. Some meals were eaten with guests and guides alike sharing a long table on the lawn and this helped engender the family atmosphere.

After lunch we were shown to our rooms, past a small herd of nyala grazing on the lawn, to find our bags were already there. As I unpacked my camera and lenses and prepared them for our first game dive, I listened to monkeys scampering over the roof of our chalet. It was good to be back in Africa.

The room had a huge double bed and there was plenty of space for charging all the electronic equipment we travel with these days. The only drawback I could find was that the wi-fi was only available in the buildings surrounding reception, a minor quibble.

At 4 o’clock we headed towards the game vehicles and met Matt, our guide, and Lonnet, his tracker. Recent rains meant that animals were quite widely dispersed but Matt and Lonnet found plenty of game to keep us interested: nyala, impala, waterbuck and steenbok, for example.

Following lions while at Idube

Following lions while at Idube

As we drove Matt was radioing other guides about what was around. Animal names were always in the vernacular, a code we would have to learn if we wanted to find out what was going on. For some reason I already knew that ingwe is Shangaan for leopard, the animal I most wanted to see, so I was listening out for this.

On our seven hour drive to Sabi we had tried to count the number of wild, uncollared leopards we had seen in more than a score of visits to game parks over the years. We decided the number was nine. That’s not a bad average, considering how well camouflaged these felids are. Nevertheless, I was hoping to improve on those figures by the end of the trip.

Our journey through the bush was interrupted as, suddenly, Matt stopped the Landrover, U-turned and headed back the way we had come. It was obvious that he knew where something was but what was it? Matt wasn’t saying. Before long he brought the vehicle to a halt, alongside another vehicle, in the middle of a crash of white rhinos.

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Even the baby filled my frame

For the first time in my life I realised that it was possible to have too much lens on your camera! I was using my 100-400mm lens and it was impossible to get the entire body of any of the pachyderms in my shots, not even the baby! I didn’t want to waste time changing lenses so I grabbed a few close-ups before using my mobile phone for the wide shots. After that drive, I always had a wideangle lens on my other camera body, ready for occasions such as this.

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The only way to get four rhinos in one image was to use my phone

Four rhinos made up the main group and there was a male that stood apart from them who was showing interest in the others, or at least interest in a member of the group. When I asked Matt if someone had radioed this in, he said no but he had spotted the other vehicle.

I later discovered that guides are not allowed to radio in the location of rhinos because, in the past, poachers have used this information to help them find the animals too. I was also told that it is illegal to post geo-tagged mobile phone photos. I haven’t been able to find out if this is true but I turned off my tagging anyway. It is all too easy to give away the exact location of these ancient creatures. More than a thousand rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa last year.

They've survived 50 million years, will they die out in our lifetime?

They’ve survived 50 million years, will they die out in our lifetime?

I had posted one of my phone photos on Instagram before I knew this. Fortunately when I checked the image I found that it didn’t have any geographical data on it – possibly because I had only just woken the phone up and it hadn’t had time to lock on to the satellites before I took the picture (all the others I took at that time did have the location embedded in them, so I was lucky not to have posted any of them). I am writing here, 3 weeks after the event, hoping that enough time has passed and that the location is sufficiently vague that I won’t further endanger these beautiful creatures that, although they have been around for more than 50 million years (according to BBC Earth), may not be around for much longer because of mankind’s misplaced desire for their horn.

If the game drive had ended then, I would have been more than satisfied, but the best had been kept until the end. After stopping for a sundowner and watching the Sun set on this idyllic place, we set off using a spotlight to see if we could spot any off the night life. After a while another vehicle came towards us and their guide said “enjoy” as they passed. I was still tired from the lack of sleep on my flight over and wasn’t thinking straight, otherwise I would have picked up on this. As it was I continued in blissful ignorance for another ten seconds or so, until I spotted, silhouetted in the light of a second vehicle, a leopard walking towards us.

Torchwood in the torchlight

Torchwood in the torchlight

I picked up my camera, hurriedly adjusted my settings in the dark and then started shooting as the beautiful cat walked towards us and then along the side of our vehicle. He was so close I could have stroked him. As Matt turned our vehicle around to follow the felid, I rushed to review my photos, convinced that I had got the perfect shot. To my horror, I saw black frame after black frame. They were all seriously underexposed. I was, to put it mildly, very annoyed. I had blown the perfect photographic opportunity.

I had a few more chances to photograph Torchwood, the male leopard, as he rooted around an old termite mound looking for the warthogs that sometimes sleep there. None of the shots were particularly exciting so I’ll just have to go back and try to capture that perfect shot again, someday.

Shooting in RAW meant that when I got back to camp I was able to salvage a couple of photos through the magic of Photoshop. They will never win any prizes but they will remind me of the beautiful leopard that got away and of the importance of preparing my settings for night photography before it is too dark to see what I am doing.

The following morning we came across three orphaned sub-adult lions, two sisters and their brother. Their mother had been killed before they were fully independent but she had obviously taught them some hunting skills because they had managed to survive without her. Their hunting technique was a bit hit and miss and so the siblings were quite skinny.

The orphans

The orphans

We were told the youngsters had stumbled across an interesting method of capturing prey. They were operating in the very west of Sabi Sands, right by the boundary fence and had discovered that chasing prey into the high-voltage cables was an effective way to catch them. Apparently even lions like ready cooked food!

On the afternoon drive that day, we came across a large herd of cape buffalo, heading for the nearby waterhole. The hippos that were already there seemed unphased by the numbers coming to disturb their peace. There was the odd yawn, as they showed off their teeth as a warning to the intruders, but no obvious aggression.

The hippos kept well away from the buffalos

The hippos kept well away from the buffalos

The poor little blacksmith’s lapwings, which are ground dwelling birds, complained in vain, however, as the buffalos rampaged towards the water, trampling and destroying everything in their path, including the birds’ nests, as they went.

Later that night we were last on the scene, once again, at another leopard sighting. Sabi Sands has strict rules about the number of vehicles that can be at a sighting at any one time. It was now becoming clear that Matt’s tactic was to be the last to any sighting (unless, of course, he found it first). That way his guests could enjoy it for as long as they liked because no-one else was waiting to have their turn.

This time it was still daylight when we arrived at the location to find the two-year-old female resting on the side of a termite mound. She was panting quite heavily. We were told that this was a sign that she had eaten recently because the increased oxygen in her blood aided digestion.

As the light continued to fade I had time to set up my camera properly and to use a flash when it became necessary. This time I was happy with the photos that I took.

The leopard tucks into an impala

The leopard tucks into an impala

For three quarters of an hour we watched her as initially she lay there and then as she moved round the termite mound back to the impala that she had killed earlier. When the time came to return to the lodge for dinner, Matt apologised that we had missed our sundowners. Nobody complained.

Our final game drive at Idube was special too. Our desire to see a leopard in a tree was satisfied and improved by the presence of a rhino nearby. That sighting ended when the cat descended and moved away from the road into the very private Singita reserve, where we couldn’t follow.

Ironically shortly after that we came across another Singita vehicle at another leopard sighting. This time the leopard was on land that Matt could traverse and the Singita vehicle had to stay on the road while we manoeuvred round the bushes until we were right beside her. It was amazing just how close these animals let the vehicles get.

Just checking!

Just checking!

As we watched the female, she raised her head long enough to check that the two approaching rhino weren’t going to be a problem before relaxing again. She panted quietly because she, too, had fed recently. Two leopard and rhino sightings in one day. I was beginning to wonder if the two species came together regularly in Sabi Sands.

We had increased the number of leopards we had seen by almost 50% in just two days. It was a fitting end to the first part of our adventures in Sabi.