Sophie Ibbotson writes about Rhinos Without Borders, a project which aims to move 100 rhinos from poaching hotspots in South Africa to new safe homelands in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
PHOTOGRAPHS: DAVID MURRAY, SOPHIE IBBOTSON
Akudu blocked the path to my tent. I looked across the channel from my deck at a giraffe sauntering by. And when I drove out in the late afternoon, the heat of the sun still burning, I envied the shaggy maned lion chilling out in the shade beneath a tree. The Gomoti Plains, a private concession to the east of the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, is remote and challenging to reach, but in the absence of many humans, the wildlife populations thrive.
What I had not expected to find, even here in this southern African Eden, was a rhino. It was a species I previously associated only with zoos, or occasionally staring out at me forlornly from the pages of National Geographic beside an article talking about their imminent extinction. Rare and precious, it hadn’t even occurred to me that I might drive out one evening and be confronted with a fully grown white rhino. But there he was, munching away on the grass, completely ignoring my presence. I struggled to stifle my shrieks of excitement and was grinning from ear to ear watching his every move, entranced.
The world’s rhino numbers have been decimated in the past 100 years. It is estimated that a rhino is killed every eight hours, and that South Africa alone has lost 7,130 rhinos since 2008. More rhinos are lost to poaching than are born, and most countries lack the resources to fight back against the illegal trade in rhino horn which drives the killing.
Botswana, however, offers a beacon of light for rhinos and other big game: it has more elephants than any other country in the world, for example. Though recent changes in hunting laws may be a cause for concern, as a rule, Botswana has a no tolerance approach to poaching. In the national reserves, anyone carrying a gun is a legitimate target for the wildlife rangers. This, combined with the low human population density, the proper resourcing of wildlife rangers (supported where necessary by troops) and constant monitoring of big game has ensured that Botswana is arguably the safest place on the planet to be a rhino right now.
This is all well and good if you happen to be a rhino born in Botswana, but what about rhinos living elsewhere? It is not as though they know to walk across a continent to this safe haven, or would be able to do so unharmed. Thankfully, Rhinos Without Borders is managing the logistics on the rhinos’ behalf, and in doing so might well save the species from oblivion.
Rhinos Without Borders – a joint project between &Beyond and Great Plains Conservation – aims to move 100 rhinos from poaching hotspots in South Africa to new, safe homelands in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Some 77 rhinos have already made the journey and it was one of these fortunate emigres that I met during my stay at Gomoti Plains Camp.
Translocating a rhino is no mean feat. You cannot simply put it into the back of a van and drive it along the road. (And remember: there are a hundred rhinos to move!). Every rhino had to be tranquillised and airlifted to safety, with a heavily armed guard to protect them whilst in transit. Flying reduced the journey time and risk of ambush while cutting down the amount of stress the rhinos had to endure so that they were more likely to settle in well when they arrived.
As you can imagine, flying a rhino anywhere doesn’t come cheap. Rhinos Without Borders estimate that it costs $45,000 to relocate each rhino and to secure it in Botswana, requiring a total budget of $4.5 million. Such funds couldn’t be raised overnight, and the translocation process also took time to refine. In the first three years, 37 rhinos steadily made the move and then the pace accelerated and 40 more were translocated in a three week period in 2018.
The work can’t stop once rhinos arrive in Botswana. They need time to acclimatise to their new surroundings, find out where to graze and recover from the shock and stress of the journey. Rhinos Without Borders commissioned purpose built steel bomas for their charges so that they could be closely monitored and then released once vets and conservationists were happy the animals were in good condition. Every rhino has a specially designed telemetry device so it can be tracked for research and security purposes; even in Botswana, no one is taking any chances.
Rhinos Without Borders have released the rhinos at multiple locations across Botswana, in both national parks and private game concessions. The chosen locations were kept secret during the move, but once released, the rhinos were free to roam.
A few days after my initial rhino sighting at Gomoti Plains, I was treated to an encounter with a mother rhino and her calf heading down to the river bank at Rra Dinare. Unlike the elephants, which stick together in huge herds, the rhinos seem to be much less sociable creatures. If these pair did have a guard (which many of the rhinos understandably do), he was well hidden, camouflaged amongst the bushes and grasses. It felt as though it was just me, the guide and two of the most precious, spectacular mammals on earth.
Sophie Ibbotson is the author of five Bradt Travel Guides, including the first guidebook to South Sudan. She travelled to Botswana with wildlife and wilderness specialists Africa Exclusive