Rhino tracking on Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, South Africa

RhinoAs dawn breaks over the game reserve soft, clear light spreads over 22,000 hectares of wild, sub-tropical scrubland. Animals are already out feeding and many of the big cats are still prowling and searching for prey to fill their empty bellies.

I ready myself to join our safari. But on this crisp, clear African morning I will not be participating in the usual game drive that tourists have come to expect. Instead, I will be helping to dart and medicate a full grown adult rhino. As it was a childhood dream of mine to be a vet, I am thrilled with the thought of being so close to one of these incredible animals. And I am even more excited to be able to help with its care in some small way.

The Kwandwe Private Game Reserve is located a short automobile or light aircraft journey from Port Elizabeth on South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Guests fly into Johannesburg before boarding a second flight across to Port Elisabeth and then transferring to the reserve on the Great Fish River.

Keeping tabs on a population of magnificent creatures such as rhinos is not the easiest of tasks. Maintaining the health and well-being of these individuals mainly falls on the shoulders of Angus Sholto-Douglas who bought the property in 2002, along with his wife and an American couple, and took on the responsibility for the animal population here. The reserve has now changed ownership but Angus is still ‘the man’ when it comes to the animals welfare.

An operation with air support

The time has arrived to travel out to the prearranged spot. It is as near as possible to where the rhino that needs our help was last seen. All the key staff are readying for the task ahead. The syringe is carefully filled with the exact amount of anaesthetic needed and attached to the shot gun by Dr. Will Fowlds. Will is our attendant specialist and a vet with years of experience of working with large mammals. He will lead this operation, initially, from the air.

As the whirring blades pick up speed, the helicopter leaves the earth with only the pilot and vet on board. We quickly scramble to our vehicles and follow the chopper. Once the rhino is found, the medication will be administered by darting from the air.  And only after the anaesthetic has taken effect will anyone approach him. For obvious reasons.

Once down, the rhino is quickly blind-folded so as not to be frightened by the movement around him. It takes about half a dozen people to push, pull and position him on his side so that treatment can be given. A tiny drill takes an infinitesimally small amount of horn to analyse.

I am encouraged to stroke the animal and feel his snout. It is very soft and reminds me of a horse’s nose. His hide is extremely tough with protruding, stiff hairs that are prickly to touch. There is a very limited amount of time to enjoy the experience of cuddling our rhino, as the anaesthetic will soon wear off. Everyone is well out of reach when the blindfold is finally removed and the rhino gets to his feet.

Poaching is a startling and significant problem on the reserve and throughout the Eastern Cape. Conservation efforts, like those practiced on Kwandwe, are vitally important in keeping the rhino population thriving. The number of these animals being killed for their horns through-out Africa is on the increase but there are now many people, game wardens and government officials, working flat out to reverse the trend.

The Kwandwe Private Game Reserve has plenty more of the Big Five to view other than black and white rhino. There are also lion, leopard, elephants and water buffalo here on the reserve. During my stay I also observe cheetah, zebra, giraffe, impala, oryx, aardwolf, caracal, wart hogs, porcupine and jackals, to name a few. Kwandwe is also home to threatened species such as Blue Crane, Knysna woodpecker, Cape grysbok, black wildebeest, crowned eagle and black-footed cat.

With just a cup of tea or coffee to start off with before a morning game drive, I appreciate returning to a scrumptious brunch waiting and ready, The breakfast muesli is gorgeous and there are tarts (lemon meringue was my favourite) and small sandwiches laid out on stone tiles as well as loads of other tempting treats.

Insights into local culture and heritage

I also had the unique opportunity of visiting the local village’s Mgcamabele Community Centre. This community centre is just one of the projects of the Ubunye Foundation which is run by those involved with the management of the Kwandwe Reserve. Many of the indigenous people living in the local village still farm, as they have since time immemorial. Now nearly 100 rural workers are employed by the Ubunye Foundation and have been re-trained for specific roles. Some are working in the animal conservation programme, others in hospitality and several dozen are working at the Mgcamabele Community Centre.

Our group was greeted with a song by the women who run the centre. It was uplifting and powerful. We were then fed a traditional meal but first were taught how to make bracelets and dolls the traditional way. It was quite endearing to see how well the children were looked after. I even had the chance to play with some of the youngsters in their playground.

Anyone staying on the Kwandwe reserve can come and help out by volunteering or, alternatively, by donating items or food. The newly built community centre offers classes and after school care for children of staff. Here there is structured play for the youngsters as well as a place for the women’s Doll Making Co-operative to meet and sew.

by Lynn Houghton

For more information

Visit Kwandwe Private Game Reserve website.

Lynn Houghton

Author: Lynn Houghton