Kate’s Malawi safari travels – Rhino Tracking on foot in Liwonde Park

black rhinoThe story of rhino conservation has been one of the glorious ‘feel-good’ stories of the 20th century. Back in 1930, we were staring over the abyss and facing the extinction of this pre-historic creature with only 10 known white rhino left in the world. Yet a few individuals, such as Ian Player, spear-headed the metaphorical and literal rebirth of the white rhino population. Population numbers soared by the late 20th century and perhaps we could be forgiven if we basked in the rare glory of a conservation success story?

Yet whilst white rhino numbers rose seemingly inexorably, (so we foolishly thought), to a high of 20,000 by 2010, black rhino were not so lucky and numbers fell almost with the same speed with a 96% population collape since the 1960’s until there are only 480 surviving black rhino left today. Now both black and white rhino are faced with a new life-assasinating threat – poaching  on a scale not seen since the 1960’s with over 350 rhino killed between January and early May this year.

They now estimate that there is a 50% chance that the prehistoric rhino will be extinct by 2030, only 17 years from now.

With this horrific thought in mind, I leapt at the unique opportunity to spend some time with the Rhino Monitoring Unit based at Mvuu Wilderness Lodge in Malawi. (See my last post for more on this charming lodge in the Liwonde Park.)

“Whatever you do, don’t run” is a title of an book of entertaining reminiscences by ex safari guide, Peter Allison. I thought of that  motto as I prepared to go out with the rhino team to track black rhino on foot in Liwonde.

What was so interesting about this activity was that it wasn’t just walking on foot to see a rhino – which is exciting enough in itself.  Rhino tracking at Mvuu Lodge is a fascinating educational experience in which rhino monitoring was put in context for you. We had an extensive briefing for 60 minutes by Christian, their Hungarian Rhino researcher and his colleague. They explained all about the history of the black rhino in Africa and also the current threats with the massive increase in horrific poaching since 2008.

There are only 480 black rhino left in the world with the biggest populations being in Namibia and South Africa. Malawi has only 26 black rhino, 14 in Liwonde Park and 12 in Majete Game Reserve. Though a small number, this is 26 more than in the 1990’s when all rhinos in Malawi had been killed in poaching. The Rhino Monitoring team’s strategy can be summed up by “Attack & Defence”. The Attack strategy is to try to provide the best habitat and environment for the black rhino to thrive and to breed. This involves moving bull males between reserves (just as Majete) to ensure that there is no inbreeding which will weaken the genetic pool. It also means ensuring that there is plenty of the appropriate browsing material (food) in any reserve. The Defence strategy is the anti-poaching methods which I will not discuss.  They are extensive and many-stranded.

In order to fund the Rhino Monitoring unit, the rhino team offer both rhino walks and rhino game drives within the sanctuary which is a reserve within a reserve.  These are at an additional cost to the usual activities at Mvuu Camp. Tracking black rhino on foot is not for the faint hearted as the black rhino is the more aggressive of the two sub-species of rhino, mainly because their natural habitat is thick bush. They also suffer from very poor eyesight but have an acute sense of smell. When they feel threatened and vunerable, their usual form of defense is attack!

Tracking black rhino in Liwonde parkFor this reason the team of three, Christian and his two rhino scouts usually only take two people on a rhino walk, or a maximum of three people if they are physically fit and strong. You start the ‘walk’ in the vehicle as you track down the rhino using a mix of tracking skills looking at spore and also radio tracking as six of the rhinos are monitored in this way to assist with research. Once you get within a certain range of the rhinos, you continue on foot. This is an adrenalin rush as you are not walking in open terrain as you normally do on a bush walk. You are walking into thick bush where a potentially dangerous animal is lurking. However the rhino team study rhino behavior and are well aware of how to approach the animal down wind so as to not alert him to your presence. There is a clear system of hand signals and strict silence is maintained once you are walking. If a rhino is alarmed by you, and decides to attack there is a clear strategy in place (thankfully this has not been needed so far). The first scout in front must distract the rhino by making a noise whilst the guide and second scout guide the two guests to safety. This could be up a tree, behind a bush where he can’t see you or simply leaping to the side. Crumbs!

As you can see, this activity is not for everyone!

Your chances of seeing rhino is pretty good given the tracking device but how soon you see the rhino is all dependent on luck. Sometimes it could be a short 300 meter walk into the bush, other times it could be a much longer walk depending on whether there is a road nearby. The activity becomes easier as the dry winter season continues in the sense that the rhino are easier to spot as the bush becomes drier and less dense. But of course temperatures start to rise from September onwards so this could be a very hot and sticky business.  From a practical point of view, the rhino tracking on foot activity in Liwonde Park is not offered in the wet summer months of late November to April because both the roads are too wet to drive on to get close and because the thick bush increases the element of danger.

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Kate Bergh is co-founder of Cedarberg African Travel, a specialist tour operator for Southern and East Africa.

She heads up the South African office, having lived in South Africa since 1993. Her home looks up to the Cedarberg Mountains, where she enjoys hiking and cycling, when she’s not out discovering new places to visit, with her three children in tow. Kate has travelled extensively throughout the region to Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe as well as most areas of South Africa. She also loves history, meeting people and a good thriller...


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