Walking the Big Five

Edited by Keri Harvey

As rangers, we encounter Africa’s most feared animals – known as the Big Five – on a daily basis. Game drives are all about experiencing wildlife from a vehicle. The excitement, fear, anxiety and respect exceed the expectations of guests, regardless of their country of origin – but this, in turn, is superseded by tracking one of the Big Five on foot. Saying it’s exciting is a huge understatement.

The first rule of the bush walk is never to run. This doesn’t sound like much, until reality strikes. I recently went on a bush walk with eager guests who wanted to experience wildlife at ground level. As a trail guide, nothing gives me more pleasure than to share this excitement with guests. We left Buffalo Camp just after breakfast, and took a short drive to where we would start our walk.

About 20 minutes into the drive, I saw very fresh tracks of one of the bush’s giants – a fully grown white rhino. We stopped to look, and after checking the wind direction we decided to follow these tracks.

I repeated the safety guidelines for the walk before we started following the rhino tracks. Walking through the savannah/woodland, the guests realised it was not all that easy, with many thorn trees and tiny pepper ticks to scratch and irritate the legs. After 20 minutes of tracking the giant animal, we found a fresh rhino midden. Everybody felt even more excited and anxious, and were determined to continue.

Walking the Big Five

Walking the Big Five

White rhinos are aggressive when they feel cornered, but they are relaxed when they have an escape route and don’t see or smell intruders. We proceeded cautiously and carefully, without speaking or stepping noisily. Suddenly, I signalled for everyone to stop, and whispered: “Sleeping rhino.” The massive animal was about 20 metres (60 feet) away from us, sleeping under a tree.

With the breeze in our favour, the animal didn’t smell us. We took plenty of photos of the majestic beast, until the wind shifted and the rhino smelled us. From total relaxation and sleep, he was instantly alert and on his feet in a split second. We immediately got up and circled around to have the wind back in our favour, and the animal settled down again.

We spent about 30 minutes appreciating the majesty and wonder of this enormous animal before deciding it was time to move on. As we left, the wind shifted again and the rhino was back on his feet and fully alert. Sometimes, the expressions on guests’ faces while on a bush walk remain in my memory forever. That day was one such time.

Rhino are very curious, and will advance upon intruders because their eyesight is extremely poor. They simply want to understand what the intruder is and whether it presents a threat. We stood up silently and backed away from the rhino before continuing on our bush walk – I believe you shouldn’t disturb wildlife, and should rather appreciate them and leave them as you found them.

Written by Joe van Rensburg, ranger at Buffalo Camp

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Two bundles of hope

Rhino-and-calf

Rhino and calf

We knew they were around. For a week or two, we’d seen their tracks on a couple of occasions, but at such a young age their mothers are extremely protective and like to keep their bouncing newborns secreted away in areas of cover. Rhino calves are something very special to see in the wild.

Now, between two and three months old, the little rhino calves are gaining confidence and becoming inquisitive – much like any other toddler. While still keeping a very close eye on their youngsters, their moms, too, are starting to let them explore more of their new world.

On game drives, we rangers always keep a good distance from young calves and any newborns in the bush. This allows them to comfortably habituate with our presence, rather than feel harassed or threatened by humans on a vehicle being near them.

With silent awe, I – along with my guests – watch as the curious young rhinos start edging away from the safety of their mother, and slowly move closer to our game viewing vehicle. Then suddenly the young ones realise how far they have ventured from mom, quickly bounce around and bound back to her for protection. It is a memorable sighting for everyone.

With the continued threat to South Africa’s rhino populations, I always try to impress upon my guests how fortunate we are to have any rhino sightings at all, and that I often fear that my future children may not be able to enjoy this privileged experience in the wild – unless some drastic changes occur.

In 2013, South Africa lost 1 004 rhinos through poaching, and by the end of May 2014 over 400 rhinos have already been killed for their horns. In the face of such alarming tragedy, it is particularly special to witness the miracle of two hopeful little rhinos curiously exploring and navigating the challenges of the first phase of their lives. With their continued drive to survive, and with the ongoing protection of their vigilant mothers and the countless people who fight on their behalf, maybe there is still some hope for the future of these prehistoric animals. Rhinos have walked the earth for over 60 million years.

Story by Kevin Samuels, ranger: Kapama River Lodge
Edited by Keri Harvey

 

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