Across Africa’s parks and conservancies, numerous programmes involving many hundreds of people are in place to help protect our endangered rhinoceros populations. To commemorate World Rhino Day, we sent Melanie van Zyl to northern South Africa to experience one of these initiatives in person.
he enormous animal teeters about on wobbly limbs, like a drunken dinosaur. It’s a sight for sore eyes. We watch from our safari vehicle, parked below magnificent mountains and a dramatic September sky. I’m part of a group of guests at the new Marataba Conservation Camps, where safari gets seriously hands-on.
This female white rhinoceros, which roams freely about the Marataba Contractual National Park in the Waterberg region, has just been darted as part of a rhino notching and DNA collection programme designed to help identification and conservation efforts. Guests are encouraged to get involved in these exercises.
Her dozy vulnerability contrasts sharply with her immense size, and my heart pangs when she slides shakily to the ground. With the rhino safely sedated, it’s go-time.
We gather beside the animal under the expertise of seasoned wildlife veterinarian and Group General Manager for Marataba Conservation, Dr Andre Uys, who divvies out duties. Everyone has an essential role to play that should keep the rhino protected under anaesthetic.
One guest must manually monitor breathing by counting the air cycles whooshing in and out of her enormous nostrils; another must track oxygen saturation rates via a beeping monitor. Then there’s the responsibility of pulling out tail hairs to classify hair follicle DNA (big chunks are best), data capture (horn measuring, microchip insertion, overall size) and assistance in securing the new radio collar to her lower leg. We learn it must fit comfortably, but roomily enough for later mud-bathing shenanigans.
I imagine Andre must hold every little wild child’s dream job. He gets to scope out pachyderms from an open-door helicopter, shoot precision rifles loaded with darts and handle animals into dreaming submission, using copious gadgets and cool tech to keep them protected. It’s probably many an adult’s ideal job too. His wife and son work closely alongside; their home is here in the bushveld, and his profession has a strong purpose.
“From the age of six, I always knew that I was going to be in conservation,” Andre tells me later. “I just believe strongly in the cause, and that we should be looking after what’s left.”
At Marataba, conservation fees are levied separately from accommodation rates, and channeled directly towards funding vital tools such as microchips, camera traps and radio collars.
“Too many organisations are calling for money and donations, where there’s no transparency around the spend, especially with rhino. It’s the perfect storm”, Andre explains. “Travellers shouldn’t just trust their donations. It’s like a business. You should be asking the right questions. How much of my $1 is actually going to ground level? Here, we can give you an absolute commitment that all of your spend goes to conservation — not some of it. All of it. That’s a key thing.
“Tourism is a massive contributor to conservation, but at the same time that leaves conservation open to serious trouble”, Andre says, reflecting on the impact Covid had on the travel industry. “You don’t then have conservation for conservation’s sake. The world’s got to realise that conservation costs money. It’s also necessary for you to live, because without protected wild areas and biodiversity and trees, you’ve got no oxygen. You’re not going to survive. I reckon we should introduce an earth tax. If you eke a living out of the planet in any way, manner or mean, you should pay a percentage of your taxes to an earth fund.”
It was WWF South Africa that first announced World Rhino Day in 2010, and now each year on 22 September the world celebrates this endangered species. But what is the current state of rhino conservation in South Africa right now?
“There’s a misperception that things are getting better”, Andre tells me. “Fewer rhinos are getting poached per annum, but as a percentage of the population it’s probably as catastrophic as it was before. The fact of the matter is if you look at the real figures — or the figures that count — the population is still declining. I don’t think we’re in a good place and we’ve got work to do. More so for white rhino than black rhino. I think globally black rhino are actually showing a little bit of an increase.”
Indeed, the IUCN recently reported that the black rhino population is growing slowly as conservation efforts counter the persistent threat of poaching. Between 2012 and 2018, the population across Africa grew from an estimated 4845 to 5630 animals in the wild — a modest annual rise of 2.5 per cent.
“Both species, in their own right and in different ways, perform a vital ecological role,” explains Andre. White rhinos are big bulk, selective grazers, while black rhinos are browsers. The world would be in a much better place without us: the vertical termites.”
The rhino population in the greater Marakele area in northern South Africa — which includes Marataba — has remained well-protected in comparison to other more significant parks.
“We got hit hard when I arrived here in 2011. I found ten carcasses in my first month of work. Then we were poaching-free for five years, which was a real feather in our cap in a challenging time, but the pressure is going to increase now. The Pilanesberg National Park has just dehorned its whole population; Madikwe is shortly to follow (we are led to believe). We would very much like to hold out on our horned population for as long as possible. After all, they’ve got horns for a reason. They need them. They use them.”
“If you look at Marakale or Marataba on the Internet, you’re going to see pictures of rhinos. I think the more people are aware of the fact that we are protecting a key rhino population, the more chance we’ve got of looking after them”, Andre reckons.
“If they’re going to come and poach here, it will happen whether we advertise it or not. It’s not like we’re immune. We are fully aware that the risk is going to increase exponentially now. We need to gear ourselves towards managing that risk. And to that end, we’ve got an amazing operation.
“The South African National Parks team do the law enforcement, but [the landowners] have a Greater Marakele Security Cluster because we share so many objectives, and hold each other accountable. Collectively, we’ve set up booms and have a camera network between the local farm community and us. That’s two million hectares of land under surveillance.”
Having administered an antidote, it takes about five minutes for our rhino to shake off the drugs and get to her newly-collared feet. She sniffs the air before trotting off across the plains. Experiential safaris like these offer guests an intimate wilderness encounter and also a platform to preserve a critically-endangered species.
“How do we remain relevant into the next two or three decades when human population growth is exceeding any parameters we ever considered?” asks Andre. “All conservation areas are shrinking. There’s a massive demand for resources, for commodities, for energy, for water. People have to understand why we are here and that it’s got some tangible benefit to them. That is probably one of the greatest challenges to conservation.”
For regular safari-goers looking to upgrade from simple animal observation to give their holiday more purpose, it doesn’t get much more tangible than this.