My house smells like rhino

IMG_0372-2Poaching is a terrible thing worldwide and it affects too many species to count. It’s not only a serious problem, it’s a scary one. In some Asian countries, Traditional Chinese Medicine TCM prescribes different animals parts (like bone, eyes, gallbladders, horns, etc.) from different species (or substitutes species!) of animals to treat an ever-growing amount of human diseases. The plight of rhino is no news for anyone that has an interest in the natural world. Rhino’s are currently being killed all around the world for on thing only: their precious horns. According to the TCM rhino horn can be used to treat a variety of thing, including but not limited to infections, fevers and cancer. However because it’s become so expensive, it’s morphed from a medicinal ingredient to a symbol of status. Only those with money and power can afford it, and will therefore flaunt it to prove they’re part of some illogical elite in their country. If you consider a KG will go for about USD 65’000 then you get what I’m saying – an expensive piece of ornament in your coffee table, marked with the blood of an innocent animal to prove how cool you are.

Trying to raise and rehabilitate rhinos into the wild in these conditions is tough and can be heart breaking. All sorts of measures from infusing the horn with poison, to dehorning the rhinos are being tried in an attempt to deter poachers – sadly, it doesn’t always work. Human greed knows no end.

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The pre rhino days.

After being closely hit by a poaching attempt on one of the handsome males, we decided to take matters into our own hands and welcome a new girl into our house: Dela – a black rhino of about 8 months of age, being the 4th new girl to share a living space. In theory she should sleep in our garden however there are no doors – or boundaries – that Dela won’t break down in order to get closer to her human mom, Erin. Have you ever heard of anyone being able to stop a rhino? No? That’s because you can’t. They’re smart and too stubborn to give up! Before losing another door or gate or bed we decided we were better off waking up early, sweeping and moping the house before our daily routine just to make sure we could keep an eye on her during the night and not stress that she was being watched while someone counted the dollars of her horn. She makes for a great foot rest for Sunday movies, problem is she smells like a rhino and she is – put it mildly – a loving brat. She only likes certain people, will only listen to Erin or Dave and

What difference could 3 girls make against armed poachers? Seriously? Nada. Zip. Zero. Nothing. A house of 3 girls, no guns, no real backup. Our only strategy is to deter anyone from coming into the middle of the living quarters to try and get a rhino out of a house. It made perfect sense to us, she would be perfectly safe with us.

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Girls night in.

Two weeks after she moved in she made Laura cry, broke Erin’s bed and peed on my sandals. Needless to say, I nearly killed her – poachers and rhinos know no rath like a girl loosing her work shoes haha!

A friend called Pumba

Every respectable African wanderer has bumped at least once into a strange looking creature made all too famous by a Disney character. If you want to be truly respected, you need to have a friend called Pumba

I got lucky, I met a real life warthog with a personality disorder called Pumba early on. Although it was such a cliché for him to be called Pumba, it didn’t make him any less cool. The Pumba I met was at the wildlife rehabilitation centre not because he was injured but because he didn’t quite know what it meant to be a warthog – the struggle was real. He was raised in a farm amongst dogs and somewhere along the way he decided that short of barking, he was a dog too. He was one of the most unique and endearing creatures I’ve encountered. He had favorites humans, despised humans, and loved a good belly tickle. He was also a bit of a bully, one look at those sharp tusks could definitely tip the balance towards another minute of strokes.

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We became friends during a Sunday nap. He came for cuddles while I was lying under a tree, we snuggled up, we napped. We became loose friends. He wasn’t my favorite and I wasn’t his, but our energy worked together. I found him funny, he knew I would give him carrots and go on a walk with him so we kept each other company.

Although he was normally friendly to everyone (even towards the people that wanted to cook him on the fire), the one thing that stuck to me though was how much he despised 2 people: another volunteer and Penelope’s son. They always denied it, but I’m sure there was a reason for it. I’ve known people and wildlife for a while now, the puzzle always fits. One day she through a rock at him and his vengeance ended up with a proper bang! Broken water pipes in her room, chewed shoes while he happily bathed amongst all the floating things. It was hard not to laugh (or to think she didn’t have it coming). How he managed such a quiet disaster remains a mystery.

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True to his character though, Pumba really lived by a Hakuna Matata motto most of the time – or rather his version of it. It meant no worries as long as the food kept coming. It a short while he gave a me a different outlook on life. He showed me how simple and plentiful things can be if you let go of what isn’t and enjoy what is, but also how you should stand up for yourself and not let yourself be scared off for fear of ending up in the fire. The life lesson that you too can be a Pumba for someone else. Let them know that it means no worries and that someone has got your back, even if it means fighting lions together. It makes all difference.

Game capture

Game capture seems to be a common event within wildlife management. Areas that are fenced off (doesn’t matter how big they are) can only take a certain number of individuals of a certain species. Why? Well imagine all the zebras in the world confined to a single space, eventually they would eat all the grass, drink all the water, have a gazillion babies and then they would start dying because there’s nothing else to eat, nothing else to drink, nowhere else to go. It’s quite dramatic I know, but you get the picture. Important part of the habitat or reserve management is the management of animal population that can have a great impact in the whole ecosystem.

So, after this introductory talk I was invited to go along an experience a true “game capture”. The day started early with a lot of previous threats, 430am we leave, be ready or fall behind. Once we arrived, we were told to jump on top of the containers, sit, watch and learn. You don’t want to be in the middle of stampede of wildebeest, zebras, horns and hooves. We all learned from Mufasa that’s not the place to be. The idea was to capture 20 zebras, 20 gnus and some impala.

So, how does it actually work?

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The end of the funnel tunnel

Somewhere in the bush a funnel like structure is created using long sheets of canvas. This structure is set a few days before the capture takes places and it’s about 50m wide at the top. Getting the animals to run in is the best part, hello helicopter and sexy bush pilots!

The entrance of the structure is technologically demarcated by a white flag (easy to see from the sky), and as the helicopter herds the animal someone runs across and closes one of the “sliding” doors of the different funnel stages, forcing animals to carry on going forwards to where the trucks are waiting. Once the zebras and gnus got on the trucks, there are magic doors on top where we stand. They get opened and using a long stick with a needle, all animals are injected with a tranquilizer for the road, making life less stressful. The downside to all this operation is that sometimes due to stress mothers abandon young ones. These type of orphans are often the ones that end up being raised by a benevolent farmer soul or get sent to a wildlife rehab center.

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My life for stripes

Zebras are… well pfff incredibly beautiful. The foals.. don’t get me started. Seeing them all together from above finally made me understand why they say that every zebra patter is as unique as a fingerprint. It’s like opening your eyes. It’s obvious, no two are alike.

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The hoofed chaos

Gnus or wildebeest as they are called here… aren’t as pretty. After seeing them run in a chaos of dust and horns you understand why their stampede was the one chosen in the Lion King. One starts running, then the next, the next one and it’s madness. Horns against horns, tangle of legs, horns and hooves together.

Au revoir 4 legged ones. Enjoy your new home!

 

 

Foxtrot

When I go through this endless array of photos, there are different folders where a selected group of celebrities is categorised under. By celebrities I mean the infamous big 5 (a term I will eventually come to hate) such as rhinos, leopards, elephants, lions and buffalo, and other popular faces like giraffes, hyenas and some shier subjects like badgers, genets and so son.

No doubt leopards are the equivalent of Hollywood stars, they’re the only ones that get a digital AND printed diary – my first taste of the human obsession that can follow the spotted cats. Leopards are also one step above everyone else as the get identified. Every different animal is “named” following the phonetic alphabet (I feel like a pilot every time I ID them).

“How can you recognise leopards?” You may ask.
Easy: comparing spots, or more accurately their “rosettes”. No two are alike, because of camera traps we normally focus on the sides of the animal to be able to tell who’s who.

Identifying them off camera traps isn’t always easy. Like super stars pestered by paparazzis, sometimes the photo angle is terrible or the speed wasn’t fast enough and you get stuck with a blurry photo that is pretty much worthless. Practice does make perfect and – if I may add – crazy. I close my eyes and all I see are spots dancing around.

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Three years ago Golf – big male leopard – was fitted with a telemetry collar so that Jan could finish research regarding male’s distribution and dispersal. The collar no longer works and for about a year they have been waiting for Golf to be photographed again or get caught in one of the traps so that they can remove the collar. On a Sunday morning, we got a phone call to say that someone had been caught. With all hopes up, we arrived and found a female that seemed to be lactating. Before getting eaten and releasing her, I quickly snapped some side photos to later on compare them. To my surprise it was Foxtrot! ¡FOXTROT!. Foxtrot was the most photographed of leopards. She’s so popular and poses so beautifully for the cameras that if she were human, she would be the new E! host girl. In human terms this was like seeing Katy Perry, of Kate Hudson or even Julia Roberts. My theory for now is also that Foxtrot is the mother of Mike & Kilo – however I still don’t have proof of this. Younger ones don’t smile for the cameras like moms do!

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Had I known a bit more about leopards, territories and behaviour back then, this (meeting Foxtrot) could have been predicted and potentially avoided(she wasn’t the target, Golf was). Leopards both males and females stick and protect a territory (spread of land with resources like food and water) where they can thrive and raise their cubs (females) or have mating opportunities and spread their genes (males) – typical. If she was the most photographed one, it was a good indication that the core of her kingdom was somewhere around the cameras where she was being spotted. But like they say, you connect the dots going back. The important thing is not to accept something just because, but find out how, when and more importantly why. Nature is a puzzle of wildlife that we can learn from and learn of the more we become fascinated by her ways, and while some things happen at random, some other can be expected.. if you have the patience to learn their ways.

After so long, and even without knowing it, it was a pleasure to meet her at last!

I never saw her again, but every now and again a snap told me she was just doing what leopards do best: living free, and that was enough.

 

Pedicure

All girls are vain. We all love wearing that little something extra to make the world take notice of us. A different hairstyle, some mascara, changing our shows a dozen times before going out, almost becomes second nature. The wild world to my surprise isn’t that much different. Not because we’re human and screwed up means that animals don’t like to stand out either.

Female rhinos are a particular and delicious case of inherent flirtation. Every time they take a bath, after a few dry or muddy days, a few drops of water are all that’s needed to a French pedicure. Perfectly demarcated nails, they have set a trend that elephants seem to be catching on.

They may not change shoes everyday… but they sure know how to rock the natural world!

Rhinos 1000 – Girls 0