Black Rhino Conservation Trip

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Dateline 1995

Dr. P went on an Earthwatch trip studying Black rhino’s in Zimbabwe for 2 weeks. After 2 weeks of looking for rhino’s in African bush he spent some time traveling around the area. This is his report, although the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

For you photo buff’s, the pictures on this page were taken be a Canon EOS Elan camera with slide film and a Canon 100mm-300mm zoom lens. This was the midd 90’s and there were no digital cameras available or even on the horizon.

One of the most endangered mammals on the planet is the Black Rhinoceros. Their numbers have plummeted from 65,000 in 1970 to just a few hundred or less wild individuals today. This has been due to poaching for their horns, which are used for two main purposes. The first is for dagger handles for the men of Yemen, although recently the handles have been replaced with materials other than rhino horn. The other main use has been for medicinals (not aphrodisiacs as is commonly thought) in China, particularly when the horn is powdered. Recently (as of 2010) the people of Vietnam have the mistaken notion that powdered rhino horn will treat their cancer, dramatically adding to the problem.

Unfortunately, for all the effort put into saving this species, the future is bleak in this part of Africa.

This is an article from the Los Angeles Times.

Dr. P went on this trip for several reasons. The first and main reason of course was to help with conservation work on the black rhino. The second was to raft the Zambezi river.

The 3rd reason was to work with the British who were in charge of this project. The are organized and have a great (and ongoing) sense of humor to put it mildly. This is an excerpt from the exhibition briefing written by the British researcher in charge of the project describing what happens when (if) we find a black rhino.

Just in case you have never seen one of these before, this is a Brit. Many of them have this silly grin on their faces, even when they are not drinking (which is rare).

When we first arrived at the camp and told them we are the American contingent, they greeted us with “oh, so you are from the colonies”!

This sign upon our arrival at camp should read “Earthwatch Earth Corps, Come Help a Changing Planet. After the Brits got to it the message came out a little different.

Enough of the Limeys, let’s get on with the expedition…..

The Black Rhino trip started in the country of Zimbabwe, formerly know as Rhodesia. It is the same size as Texas. It is here that conservationists are waging an all out battle against the poachers. The park rangers in Zimbabwe have license to kill poachers on sight. Unfortunately corruption is ever present, and makes their job difficult. Our exact location was Hwange National Park, in the western section of the country.

The blue horizontal line denotes the equator, so we are in the southern hemisphere. The blue arrow points to Zimbabwe.

Lets take a quick tour of the Sinamatella camp before we start looking for those rhino’s.

The resident hornbill that kept us company at our campsite.

Two person tents gave us plenty of room to store all those supplies we brought along and never used.

After a hot, long, and dusty day in the bush we came back to some nice showers.

We even had our laundry washed for us whenever we needed.

Believe it or not he actually put hot coals in the iron!

There is a reason they did our laundry for us besides just being nice. They ironed our clothes because it kills the eggs of the Putzi Fly (African Tumbu Fly). This fly lays eggs in clothes that are moist from perspiration. The eggs turn into larvae (maggots) and burrow into your skin when you put the clothes back on. Routine washing does not kill the eggs, you need the heat of the iron to do this.

Here are some of the characters on the trip. Anton, a south African who works at the camp, was a sheer joy to work with. He is on the left wearing the green shirt. Do you notice what is in his left hand? Sue is on the right, and even though the expediton briefing clearly, unequivocally, emphatically, and succinctly told us to break in our hiking boots, Sue purchased hers just prior to the trip. So she has a blister. You can guess what Anton is going to do……

…..yes, he is going to stick a needle in her blister and take off the fluid!.

Anton told Sue not to worry because he sterilizes all his surgical equipment with Jix. We have no idea what Jix is, and neither did Anton probably. We do know though that the HIV prevalence in this part of Africa in 1995 was 30% !

Evening meals brought visitors from throughout the area for some good food and cold beers. We stayed up late many nights around the campfire talking the night away.

This is the view from our campsite. Lets test your game viewing abilities. The blue arrow points to a white windmill off in the distance. Use this as your landmark. Is there anything else of interest in this photo, perhaps and animal or two. Look closely…

When we zoom in a little more you can visualize the white windmill much easier. Now do you see anything?

Lets try a little closer…..Look at the top left of the picture. Those are elephants.

One last zoom of the camera and a lone elephant is apparent.

Lets try another one. Do you see any wildlife in this picture?

Its an elephant again, in the top left quadrant in the photo above.

Now that you are an expert give this one a try……

If you want the answer you have to email us with your guess. Good luck!

Our day started early, before the heat became too intense. We were required to take at least 2 liters of water before we were allowed to leave camp. When we were picked up by the jeep at the end of the day they had to bring water because we were out.

First thing every morning our leader Skye meet with the park rangers to determine what areas were too dangerous to enter. Dangerous meant poachers or large amounts of lions.

We were then assigned sectors for our transect, always walking from north to south.

Once we had our water and sector it was time to pile into the jeeps for the 1-2 hour ride to our transect point.

These roads aren’t exactly paved, so we had to hang on for most of the ride.

We would spend 6-8 hours walking a specific transect looking for any evidence of rhinoceros. Hard to believe there are any animals in this dry brush.

One of the park rangers always lead the way carrying an AK-47, his main anti-poaching weapon (although a poor weapon against big game). This guide’s name is Zhou. These men are rugged individuals that can function in this environment with minimal food and water.

We looked for any evidence of rhino. This shows how they browse and leave evidence of their presence.

Whenever we came across a Black rhino footprint we did two things after the park ranger verified it was the right rear foot of a Black Rhino. First, it was logged into our notes, measured, and a picture was taken. Next we traced it with acetate paper for later scanning into a computer for identification. Rhino’s are so scarce that just finding a footprint of one was considered a successful day.

Where we found the tracks was of critical importance. In addition to our maps and compass, we used a GPS system to help increase the accuracy of our data.

When we got real lucky we actually saw rhino. This is a radio collared female. Notice how the mother’s horns have been trimmed. This is an effort by the government to decrease poaching, since if a rhino has no horns, it is not worth it to kill it. Unfortunately this did not work.

Her calf was with her. If you look carefully you can see the oxpecker on the mother’s back. Rhino’s have terrible eyesight but keen senses of smell and hearing.

There are several safety precautions to take when a rhino starts moving towards you like these two did. One of the most important ones it to get into a tree ASAP. An added advantage to being in the tree is it decreases their ability to smell you, allowing for some great photographic opportunities when they wander close.

The calf came into the open so I shot a quick photo as I shimmied up the tree.

You can see the 3 toes on her feet. This classifies her as a perrisodactyl (having one or an odd number of toes).

Most of the time this is the photo you get of a rhinoceros- the south end while the rhino is going north.

This day was very successful. Our group came across 3 rhinos, while the groups walking other transects saw none. As a reward I gave Zhou my Swiss army knife.

You can see from his smile the knife was well appreciated. Without the skills of the park rangers there is minimal chance we would see any Rhino’s.

After a long and hot day walking the transects a pickup truck (with water, thank you) was there to greet us and take us back. Hmmmm, hope there are no snakes in this grass.

Some of the best game viewing occurred standing in the bed of the pickup while driving back to camp. While everyone else was inside nodding out Dr. P enjoyed the African bush as the sun was setting and creating his shadow.

>Our africa adventure does not end here though. After working hard for 2 weeks it is time for some game viewing in other areas of Zimbabwe. The first area I went to was called Nemba camp. It was much more luxurious then our tents at Hwange. The proprietor of the camp was Chris, a former big game hunter. Like all guides his knowledge of the area was impressive.

Dinner time was announced with a little more style

We went from only beer at Hwange to “would you prefer white wine or red wine with your meal sir”

After dinner we indulged in some of the finest scotch available. This is Gordon, an Irishman on the trip that brought along some scotch that was over 35 years old. The “lion attacking the guides” stories started flowing after a few sips of this rare vintage…….

Accommodations were a permanent tent.

Your morning shower was outside with the blue sky as your backdrop.

At Nemba camp the guides were professional game scouts and not park rangers. Our first guide was Mark, who preferred an elephant gun (like all the guides) to an AK-47, since he was not concerned with poachers. As you can see from the picture with the elephant, it is rare for them to use their weapons. They have a profound understanding of when an animal is bluffing, like this elephant, and when there is an actual charge.

These guides are naturalists and have knowledge of all the plants and animals in their area. Anthropology time- did you know these are Baboon skulls on the left, and a Vervet monkey skull on the far right?

It is ironic that a country with a plummeting population of Black rhinos can have a surplus of elephants. There is such a surplus of elephants that they have to be culled. Some of the old bulls are quite large, as evidenced by this thigh (femur) bone.

You can tell the age by the molars. Look how the molars on an old elephant on the left are worn down much more than the young elephant on the right.

This place was lots of fun. At tea time (4 PM) we would climb a tree over a waterhole and watch the elephants as we sipped our tea. One time Dr. P asked if we could have Jamba Juice next time instead of tea. The joke did not go over very well.

From this vantage point the elephants didn’t seem to care about us

Chris set us up with camouflage around a waterhole to get close to the action

As the afternoon progressed the herds start coming in from the distance

When they arrived at the waterhole they seemed to all drink on cue

The wind was just right, so some of the wildlife literally walked right past us

This cape buffalo gave us quite a stare before he felt comfortable enough to proceed for his drink

The baboons put on a continual show. This large male was the king of the hill.

While this little guy (he reminded me of my nephew) bounced on this branch continually

Eventually the sun settled, and so did the baboons, in the branches of a tree

Dr. P got one last shot of the elephants at the waterhole to end a successful day

Time for a change of scenery and a new guide (Andy)

This new location was 3 houseboats in the Lake Kariba area. Talk about quaint! In the morning someone from the dining room (the houseboat on the picture on the right) would bring morning coffee via canoe.

Dr. P had Andy to himself and got to track some lions. Andy got a little too close to a lioness with her cub. Here she is after a bluff charge telling us not to come any closer.

We wisely decided to vacate the area and went out in a skiff to look for wildlife. Andy saw vultures circling in the distance and new something was up, so we investigated.

As we followed the vulture by boat we came across two lionesses that just made an impala kill at the waters edge.

This was a great chance to get close since we were in a boat and lions do not like to go in the water. So Andy manuevered the boat within 20 yards. Neither lion was happy about us disturbing their meal.

They got used to us after a few minutes but kept a continual eye on our actions as we slowly moved closer.

We explored the lake further and found a darter drying her wings

She flew off and landed on a nearby nest.

We wanted to get a better look at the chicks, so after the mother flew off again we climbed an adjacent branch.

Do you see the 3rd chick in the lower right corner?

We continued our exploration of the lake and came across this guy at the waters edge. This is a cattle egret on top of a Cape buffalo’s head. Do you also see the oxpecker in front and below the egret?

As the sun started to go down we drank “sundowners” and toasted to a very successful day!

In the last leg of the trip Dr. P went to a place called Mana pools in the northern part of the country. Instead of walking in the bush, most of the time was spent in a canoe. This guide was named Dave, and he specialized in the river.

Dr. P had the opportunity to sit in the front of the lead canoe. This led to many a good photographic opportunty.

On this segment of the trip there was an eclectic group of doctors and nurses from Arizona

Whenever we took a break Dave would walk around an make sure all was safe. He is checking out what he calls “adrenaline grass”. Its his way of saying that it could easily hide lions.

We canoed along some very scenic water

There are numerous reasons why not to venture into the water in Africa. There are many parasites along with crocodiles. This tigerfish is another reason.

The main reason not to go in the water, at least on this canoe trip, are the hippopotamous. They are highly territorial and aggressive. When you are in a canoe at the same eye level as they are you realize how vulnerable you are. This is why you are with a guide that specializes in this river.

We apparently got a little to close for his comfort and he gave us the signal to keep on moving……

…..by opening his mouth and rapidly moving towards us

He became moret emphatic by chomping at the water as he came closer

On one occasion we had to put on the breaks and yield to a herd of cape buffalo who decided to cross in front of us

The area abounds with bird life. This is a yellow billed stork.

This is a carmine bee-eater and a little bee-eater

The cattle egret would follow between the elephant’s legs and eat the insects that were stirred

After a long day of eating insects they had their own sundowner

The river was an elephant haven. These females got into a protective posture as we floated by.

Dave assured Dr. P it was OK to get close to this male on the bank

We got so close to this male we could literally reach out and touch the tusks if we wanted

Anatomy lesson time. These huge ear veins, as the elephants continuously flop their ears, is a mechanism they use to stay cool in the intense heat.

Crocodlies commonly lined the banks, although we rarely saw them in the water

The four week trip finally ended with a visit to Victoria Falls, one of the 7 wonders of the world. The Zambezi river at the base of the falls is a great place to go whitewater rafting, especially if you don’t mind getting wet!

The End!