Babanango welcomes orphaned black rhinos as game reserve makes history
SA conservation history was made recently when four black rhinos — all rescued from poaching incidents — were released on a private reserve, a world first attempt to establish a new population from all orphaned animals
At 6am helicopter pilot Delport Botma collected me from the lodge and we began our 40-minute flight. My adrenaline was pumping because this was a rare chance to participate in an anti-poaching patrol of the reserve fences and also because the helicopter had no doors. As we turned sharply in midair, I realised this would be an exercise of trust in the pilot and my seat belt.
Below, animals scattered over the Zululand hills, which gave way to fertile valleys as we flew along until the mighty White Umfolozi River came into view. At Babanango Game Reserve in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal, anti-poaching efforts are costly but necessary and twice-daily chopper flights form a vital part of that. Luckily for me, guests at Babanango can join in as an add-on experience.
Seeing the game below is a matter of conservation pride. Through the establishing of the 20,000ha reserve, Babanango has embarked on one of the biggest rewilding projects in the country. Last year alone, more than 1,500 head of game were returned to an area of wilderness where decades ago they would have roamed freely.
There was, however, a little more riding on today’s flight. We needed confirmation that all was in order as the next day would be a significant one, not just for Babanango but for countrywide conservation: the world's first attempt to establish a new black rhino population using only orphaned animals would be happening here.
The four rhinos had been saved from different poaching incidents, varying in age from two months to two years at the time of their rescue. For the past few years they’ve been cared for by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife staff at an undisclosed location. Thanks to the work of the World Wildlife Fund’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP), they were about to go to a new home.
BRREP is a partnership between WWF and Ezemvelo, which is boosting black rhino populations by introducing small groups to various reserves across the country. I got to chat with Dr Jacques Flamand, who leads the project.
“BRREP was started in 2003 to address a concern that our black rhino growth rate was in decline. Today, 40% of rhinos in KZN are on private land, whereas there were none when we started — and thank goodness.”
Private reserves, he explained, are smaller and so easier to police than the national parks, and better funded, so better able to cover costly anti-poaching efforts.
“Black rhino were critically endangered when the project started, but there wasn’t a huge poaching wave then. Since 2006 we’ve lost thousands of rhinos in South Africa.”
EYE TO EYE
Later that afternoon, we headed to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, a 90-minute drive from Babanango, where the rhinos were waiting at a secret site. Established in 1895, it is the oldest proclaimed nature reserve in Africa and is coincidentally the birthplace of rhino conservation. Thanks to the pivotal work of Dr Ian Player from the 1950s onwards, the country’s rhino population was not only stabilised but grew. In the early 1900s, the population had been devastated as a result of unregulated hunting, but today the challenge has shifted to poaching.
Early the next morning, I walked along the elevated gangway and gazed at the four orphaned rhinos below, all oblivious to how the next few hours would forever change the trajectory of their lives.
By 6am there was enough light to start. First, the animals were semi-tranquillised with a dart gun. Fascinatingly, in their sedated state, rhinos will follow a white flag, which is how they were led into the crate. Once safely inside, they were loaded onto a truck. We raced ahead to Babanango to wait.
While the day would be filled with countless emotions, perhaps no moment was as poignant as when the valiant members of the anti-poaching unit arrived, clad in camo. The crates carrying the rhinos had several small breathing holes and, one by one, each of the men walked up and had a chance to peek inside.
For the first time, they were able to look into the eyes of the creatures for whose protection, on a daily basis, they put their own lives on the line. Though still semi-sedated, the rhinos were aware of their presence. It was a touching moment, a sacred exchange not easily captured in word or image.
When the teams were ready, the rhinos were darted again, this time to be fully sedated. The crates were opened just before they passed out, so they tumbled out to where, with ropes, they were caught and helped to lie down. Next, they were fitted with transmitters onto the stub where their horns had been shaved down, along with a collar around a leg.
Finally, after a long and emotional day, bystanders were moved to a safe observation distance, leaving only the four vets. They simultaneously administered the antidote for the anaesthetic and quickly jumped into the waiting bakkie.
As the rhinos awoke they began to explore their surroundings. One of the males soon asserted his dominance over one of the others — a positive sign, I was told. I could almost imagine the rich timbre of Sir David Attenborough’s voice narrating this moment of wildlife triumph.
Later that night, sitting around the fire with conservation giants was a sobering experience. Their faces and stories carried the weight of the challenges faced. It’s a disheartening situation but continuous efforts by wildlife authorities and organisations have and, hopefully will continue to, ensure that our rhinos don’t just survive, but thrive.
I asked Flamand how he was able to maintain hope. There was a moment’s pause. “South Africa is the last stronghold of rhino. We have to fight on otherwise they will completely disappear from the planet and we just cannot let that happen. We’ve seen that with so many species. I don’t know what the future is for rhino, but we’re trying to make a difference and let’s hope that the next generation can carry the mantle and succeed.”
WATCH | The full story of the released black rhino at Babanango Game Reserve.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
1. Book a safari at Babanango and know that part of your spend will go towards its conservation efforts. Take it one step further as I did and pay the R3,000 to go on an anti-poaching helicopter flip.
2. For an informative and compelling look at the concept of rewilding, Grant Fowlds and Graham Spencer’s book, Rewilding Africa, is an excellent read. Available at loot.co.za for R220.
3. WWF has a programme through which people can “adopt” an animal, including rhino. From R300 per month you’ll support an animal and receive a certificate and regular updates. wwf.org.za
4. If you’d like to get more hands on, Wildlife ACT offers participation in paid volunteer projects.
STAYING AT BABANANGO
WHERE IT IS: Babanango Game Reserve sits inland from Richards Bay in northern KwaZulu-Natal, about three hours’ drive from King Shaka International Airport. It is roughly six hours’ drive from Joburg.
ACCOMMODATION OPTIONS: The farm-style Valley Lodge sits at the base of a hill. Zulu Rock Lodge has chalets on a mountainside overlooking a valley.
RATES: Zulu Rock is from R2,650 ppspn; Valley Lodge from R2,450. Includes all meals, drinking water, tea and coffee, two activities per day (game drives, walks and at Valley Lodge the copper mine tour). Excludes reserve fees of R180 pppd and drinks not mentioned.
OTHER ACTIVITIES: Helicopter flips/patrol, private game drives, bush dining/private dining, camera trap experiences, guided walks and battlefield/historical tours.
MORE INFORMATION: See babanango.co.za.