Rhinos Return

By Jeremy O’Kasick

In May of 2010, five eastern black rhinoceros were returned to Tanzania from South Africa aboard a C-130 Hercules airplane during a five-hour flight that touched down on a wilderness airstrip, one of the most ambitious initiatives ever to preserve the dwindling species in East Africa.

This effort was choreographed by the Serengeti Rhino Repatriation Project, begun eight years ago as a collaboration between Tanzania National Parks, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and Grumeti Reserves. It has the support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is one of a number of programs attempting to stem the decline of the rhino across Africa, whose population has plummeted more that 90% in the past 40 years.

“It was the largest number of large animals, moved the longest distance internationally, in history,” according to a program manager for the Frankfurt Zoological Society.

Visiting the Rhino Boma

They call them rhino bomas, cottage-sized, open-air enclosures made from wooden poles, named after the boma settlements of the Maasai who live throughout northern Tanzania.

Before the animals left South Africa, it took weeks for them to adjust to the enclosures, which ultimately helped them on the long flight. Likewise, they had to be gradually reintroduced to a new habitat and country, and thus the need for the bomas. At an undisclosed location in the Serengeti several of these structures have been housing some of the most watched-over and guarded animals in the world.

After a kind invite from Frankfurt Zoological Society, Thomson Safaris had the pleasure of visiting the repatriated rhinos in the Serengeti this past July. We met the dedicated Tanzanians, South Africans, and international conservationists who lead the project. And we met the two ladies who are affectionately known as the “rhino whisperers.” No kidding!
The rhinos’ special handlers, Juliette Erdtsieck and Berry White, escort our group up to the bomas and begin to coo, coax, and whisper sweet nothings into the seashell-shaped ears of these ancient beasts.

“Come on pretty girl, come here, darling!” Juiliette calls to a three-year-old female named Luna. She soon reaches out and offers the 1000-pound juvenile one of her favorite treats – a dried fruit that looks like monkey bread from baobab trees. That does the trick, as Luna soon comes lumbering over to the boma wall and takes the tasty snack from Juliette’s hand.

While we are just feet from the rhinos, we stand on a platform on the other side of the wall. For as tame as the rhinos appear, even their handlers never stand eye to eye with them on the ground. With their heaving bulk and double horns, rhinos are formidable creatures. As they are temperamental by nature, it is best to remain aware that they are capable of sudden angry outbursts and a top speed of 30 miles per hour.

We’re each given a chance to feed Luna and Benji, a male bull. Juliette even shows us how to give the rhinos a rubdown with a coarse brush attached to a pole. “He likes it best when you scratch his belly,” she says of Benji, as he lies down in the shade next to the boma wall. “Thattaboy!”

If they keep this regimen up, the rhinos might have to stop into one of the Serengeti’s lodges for a luxury spa treatment. In actuality, the pampering has a purpose. The trainers are calming the animals so they will be ready for reintroduction into the wild, with minimal stress.

As we bid farewell to Luna, Benji, the other rhinos, and their many guardians, their release into the lands of their ancestors glimmers on the not too distant horizon. “Nothing quite like this has ever been done before,” says the project’s leader, Emile Smidt. “So far, so good.”

Dinosaur-Like

Descriptions of rhinoceroses often evoke images of dinosaurs and rightly so. The hulking herbivores date back 60 million years to the Miocene era. With their thick gray hides and humped backs, they appear rock-like. Their horns are reminiscent of those of a triceratops or another ancient reptile. Unfortunately, also like dinosaurs, some subspecies of rhinos may have gone extinct in Africa, such as the western black rhino.

Despite major international conservation efforts, and millions upon millions of dollars, the demand for rhino horns continues to rise, especially in underground markets in Asia and elsewhere where it is believed that the horns have medicinal powers. In impoverished communities in Africa, the lure of such income can lead to tragic results. Many conservationists advocate for programs worldwide to reeducate communities about the myths of rhino horns and the need to conserve these wonderful creatures.

Free to Roam

By 1991, only two rhinos remained in the Serengeti ecosystem, which had been decimated by poaching. Luckily, conservation efforts like these have helped the continent’s rhino population rise from 2,300 in 1993 to 4,200 today. About 200 of these rhinos reside in Tanzania.

In fact, the new rhinos in the savannah are returning to the roots of their ancestors. All are descendents of rhinos first brought to South Africa from East Africa in a preservation effort during the 1960s. With the project’s continued success, Tanzania looks to welcome 27 more rhinos from South Africa in the years ahead.

Since our visit in July, we are happy to report that the rhinos have been reintroduced to an ideal habitat in the Serengeti near some small rivers, beside a nice variety of shrubs and trees.

A highly skilled team of researchers, conservationists, and veterinarians from Tanzania and around the world worked around the clock to make the release successful. The rhinos have had their ears notched for easy identification and been fitted with radio transmitters to track their movements. Researchers have also vaccinated them against threatening diseases.

While the process of rehabilitating the rhinos is ongoing, the latest development is encouraging. Eventually, researchers hope that the group will mix and mate with rhinos already in the Serengeti. These animals have existed for millions of years. With efforts like the Serengeti Rhino Repatriation Project, we have hope they will survive for generations to come.

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