By Susie Ellis, Ph.D., IRF Executive Director
After spending the night at Raoul du Toit’s house (IRF’s African Rhino Program Advisor), we left Harare for Save Valley Conservancy in the early morning. Rick Barongi, Director of Houston Zoo (and IRF Board Member) and Deleen du Toit (Raoul’s wife) drove in a truck. Raoul and I flew in his two-seater plane. It was incredibly hazy coming out of Harare; many fires were burning in the farmland fields. Some of the burns are used to clear the fields on lands that have been invaded; others just seem to have swept out of control. We stopped at Chichakwe Ranch to meet and have lunch with Mark Brightman, who has taken over security detail for Save Valley, and to meet three of the ten Save Valley rhino monitors, Laurence Ncube, Chris Ndhlovu, and Edson Chuma.
Each of them noted that they are deeply committed to their work, and interestingly, all three had fathers who were also engaged in wildlife or forestry. Mark reported that shots were heard a few days ago in Save Valley, and so all the scouts are on high alert. We believe the poachers are using army service weapons, based on ballistics evidence gathered. From items left behind at the scene when scouts scared one group off, it appears that there are at least a couple of groups operating, and that they are fairly sophisticated. There seem to be two gangs, minimally, in operation. One removes the horn with a v-cut and the other chops it off without taking any part of the skull. The scouts in Save work closely with indemnified officers (police, defense forces, or from National Parks) particularly if there are actual engagements on the ground with the poaching gangs.
After lunch, Raoul and I then climbed back into the plane and began to track rhinos. The process goes like this: the plane gets up about 600-700 feet above ground, and the radio-tracking device is turned on, set to the transmitter frequency of the animal Raoul’s seeking. The antennae are located on the plane’s wings. One the device starts to beep, Raoul then circles the plane in tighter and lower circles (not for those with a weak stomach!) around the point of the signal until the animal can be seen. A couple of the animals were hiding in the bush which made them very difficult to see. We ended up seeing ten black rhinos in all, including female Gladys and her calf; adult female Ruth; female Fideya with an unidentified bull (which could be good news!); two other adult females, Sarah and Alice; and two of the big bulls, Goliath and Diesel. Goliath got his name from his enormous size. Diesel gets his name because the team has had to translocate him several times; he keeps going back to unsafe areas after he’s been translocated to safer ones – and it’s taken a lot of diesel to keep moving him to safety. This time, Diesel was in an area right near a settlement, which does not bode well for his future. He is a very robust, large, handsome male, but for some reason keeps going back to areas where he is at risk.
Later that afternoon, we flew to Senuko, a lodge operated by Clive Stockil and his partner Lin Barrie, who studies African wild dogs and also is an artist. In addition to being Chairman of the Save Valley Conservancy, Clive also is Chairman of the Lowveld Rhino Trust. He is an icon in Zimbabwe’s rhino conservation efforts, having been involved since the beginning, as has Raoul, with the efforts to stock conservancies with rhinos. Thank goodness for their vision and passion, or else Zimbabwe’s rhino situation would be even more dire than it is now. Rhino populations in national parks have continued to decrease rapidly, and now the conservancies, especially Save Valley and Bubye River, represent the most important populations which can serve as a source population for future restocking once adequate protection and land management is in place again.
Sadly, Clive and Lin’s lodge which overlooks most of the Conservancy, Senuko, had burned just days prior to our visit. A fire set in an invaded area nearby got out of control and quickly swept through the Conservancy, completely destroying the lodge. A few important items were saved, including a large oil painting Lin had done of wild dogs, but almost all the furniture and hardwood poles that supported the thatched roof were gone. I offered my condolences on the loss, and Clive, obviously a tenacious optimist, said, “Well, the end of one chapter and the start of a new one.”
We also had a chance to visit with Jackson Kamwe, who works in Save Valley with Clive. Jackson was the recipient of a 2009 Conservation Hero Award from the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund. I asked him a lot of questions about deployment and how the monitoring system works in Save Valley. There are 10 trackers there now; they patrol every day with a list of animals that need to be found. When an animals is sighted, a GPS reading is taken and information noted on a form, including date, time, ear notch markings, general status, etc. The data then is compiled in a central site for long-term monitoring for trends and the status and activities of individual rhinos.
We stayed overnight at Hammond Lodge with Graham Connear and his wife Chantal, who hosted a lovely dinner at the lodge for all of us. Great dinner discussions on how IRF can best support the conservancy efforts, and of course dreams of a day when rhinos won’t be facing the dire circumstances they are today. Scorpio was bright in the sky and the Milky Way was dazzling. Love those African night skies!