Behind the lens: Black rhinos make the long trip home to Tanzania
I recently got back from an incredible four-day trip to Tanzania in East Africa where I accompanied three captive-bred black rhinos on a translocation from Port Lympne Wildlife Park in Kent to Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania.
The black rhino is one of the most endangered species on earth, poached and hunted extensively in Africa for their valuable horn – fetching, kilo for kilo, more than gold. The going rate for a single horn is up to $350,000 on the illegal market. These incredible prices have been driven by increased demand for horn (which is keratin, unlike tusk) in the far East and places such as Vietnam or Yemen, where it is ground up and people see it as having almost ‘supernatural’ medicinal properties.
In a project organized by a trio of charities, The Aspinall Foundation, Tusk Trust and the George Adamson Trust, the three rhino were airlifted to Kilimanjaro airport from Manston in Kent by a specially donated DHL 757 transporter plane. I accompanied the rhinos on this epic journey all the way to the small National Park in Tanzania where conversationalist Tony Fitzjohn runs the Mkomazi rhino sanctuary.
The plan would be for the animals to be prepared for an eventual full introduction back into the wild and hopefully breeding.
A few weeks ago, ahead of the translocation, I had visited Port Lympne where Prince William, in his capacity of Patron of Tusk Trust, had met one of the rhinos, Zawadi, and recorded a passionate interview for the BBC highlighting the ignorance of these poachers. The Prince also witnessed attempts to habituate the rhinos to their specially designed crates, a small space where they would end up spending more than 18 hours during the translocation itself. Trying to get the rhinos used to this unnaturally confined space was a process for which staff at the wildlife park had been preparing the animals for, for over a year.
Travelling on a plane with no windows, a low wattage of fluorescent lighting, two large stacks of hay and dominated by three large wooden crates was an interesting experience. The odour generated by these mildly sedated animals was certainly something I won’t forget in a hurry, and by the end of the journey, there was some fairly dubious substances swilling around under our feet. I eventually managed to get a couple of hours sleep perched on a pile of carrots (rhinos love carrots) at the front section of the place.
Even the pilots were getting into the spirit of things with their luminous “rhino” branded vests. The aircraft was stacked full of spare parts, essential in an emergency to keep the plane flying to its final destination and the rhinos safe from dangerous delays. The rhinos were certainly treated a lot better than many of the flights I had been on, with keepers feeding them carrots and other rhino delicacies throughout the journey.
Feeding the rhinos was certainly a nervous process; every effort made sure that the animals were kept calm, as any sudden movements could send them into an aggressive frenzy, smashing against the side of the crate and injuring themselves and potentially others (not something you want at 38,000 feet!). Along the route, keepers and a “rhino whisperer” called Berry White kept the animals calm, and made sure they were comfortable. Years of caring for the animals mean that these keepers and the familiarity of their voices have a soothing effect on the rhinos. In case this wasn’t enough, head vet Pete Morkel was also on hand with sedatives for the animals, and throughout the journey Morkel kept a close eye on their health.
On arrival into Kilimanjaro International airport the animals were swiftly unloaded and craned onto three trucks to begin the 4-hour drive through the bush to Mkomazi National Park.
At the the Mkomazi Rhino Sanctury began the final release of the rhinos into their holding “boma” – a tense process, spearheaded by Morkel, together with Damien Aspinall (of the Aspinall foundation) and Tony Fitzjohn of the Adamson Trust. With nervous onlookers, the woozy and disorientated animals were carefully released from their crates. It was a tense moment as any number of things could go wrong – the confused and disorientated rhinos can turn aggressive and injure themselves or someone else. Fortunately, everything went smoothly, the rhinos took to their new African surroundings quickly and within a few hours, they looked very relaxed and at home.
Visiting the animals the next day you could see that they relished their new surroundings: After all, this was where they had come from and where they belong.
Keeping them safe in this new environment is not a cheap prospect, however. Fitzjohn has installed expensive double electric fences and employs an army of rangers to protect the beasts from poachers. (photo of Philbert).
For Fitzjohn it is an uphill struggle, but he sees education as key to making sure a new generation of Africans are aware of the value of these animals — alive — and that it is important to protect them for future generations. To this end, he has developed a teaching program and educational building near his rhino reserve that hosts local school children, teaching them the importance of conservation.
Political influence is crucial in influencing the demand for the rhino horn, and the importance of Prince William’s involvement cannot be underestimated. He is bringing the fight to a wider audience and one that has the power make governments listen and do something about this incredibly important conservational issue.