I was fortunate enough to go on assignment for Getaway last week, to attend a press trip organised by South African Tourism and Ecotraining, a guide training organisation based on various reserves in South Africa and Botswana.
I was away for five days, without much cellphone signal, so felt I really had an optimal experience of “being in the bush”. The experience was definitely enhanced by some impressively knowledgeable guides, who have given me a different perspective on conservation, most importantly when it comes to one of our most threatened species- the white and black rhinoceros.
The course included both lectures and practical assignments, but most of our time was spent either on the game vehicle navigating our way through the complex road system of the Karongwe Private Game Reserve, or walking, stopping to watch bigger game like giraffe, elephants and cheetah, and discussing the intricacies of the equally important insects, birds and flora. Our main aim was to see and learn about rhino though, which why we spent one full day out following signs, spoor and radio conversations to find them.
Some things I would recommend to get the most out of tracking rhino in the bush:
As animals are less active during the heat of the day, you’ll increase your chances of seeing them by getting up before sunrise. This is something I had to remind myself of when I was trying, very hard, to get out of bed at 5.30 in the morning, only barely able to reply to the friendly wake-up call outside my tent. Once I was awake (sort of), a slow process assisted by Ricoffy and rusks, I had to remind myself how fortunate I was, and that if we were going to see rhino, or anything else, we had to do it properly. As I don’t often manage to wake up early (clearly), driving around the early morning was also a novelty experience, enhanced by the many laughs at my expense for being almost comatose.
One of our guides, Will Lawson, taught us many things on the trip, most of which I’m sure is written down in my notebook, somewhere. One thing that stuck with all of us though was to do what is called a “soft scan”. This basically means you should look “through” the bush and not for something specifically. That way, you’ll allow your senses to pick up on anything that’s unusual, a shape, something moving. Another way is to scan from both left to right and right to left. This is because our brains are apparently used to processing information from left to right from reading, so reversing the process challenges us, and makes us more likely to spot things that are out of place.
If you’re going to see an animal, you’ll often see signs of them first. This includes looking out for spoor (footprints), changes in vegetation and of course, excrement, which has a prolific presence in the bush. This can include rhino male territorial “scrapings”, which consist of wet, trampled patches of grass that have been urinated on and “spread” with the feet. That, and of course, their poo, which can tell you specifics about species from the content of the dung. Looking out for these signs can be tricky on a vehicle though, which is why we stopped on several occasions to look at tracks in the road, and even spent some time making a plaster of Paris cast of white rhino spoor to get an even better idea of the exact shape. This is a process that may or may not have been completely successful.
Ethology is the study of animal behaviour, according to Ecotraining guide Margaux Le Roux, who gave us a talk on the various and interesting facets of rhino behaviour before our day of tracking. So to track a rhino successfully, you’ll not only need to be able to identify signs of their presence, but also understand their behaviour to figure out where they are when they’re not conveniently visible from the vehicle. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get a full demonstration of rhino behaviour from your guide, who will happily mimic the previously mentioned rhino territory marking shuffle and even lie down/roll in the dirt to give you some perspective on the rhino “lying-down” marks in the sand.
As Will often reminded us, “you can’t put nature in a box”. So matter how much you follow the rules when it comes to tracking, sometimes you just won’t see anything. You’ll walk on foot past a dam with thirteen hippos in it, thinking you might come across the four nkombe mentioned on the vehicle radio. You’ll wait, and get fairly nervous, as the hippos stare at you, somewhat menacingly, from the water instead. You’ll drive around, hoping to catch the rhino as they pass from one “block” to the another, speculating that at some point they’ll have to cross somewhere. But you won’t see them, not until four o’ clock in the afternoon, when you’ll suddenly come around the corner to see all four subadults right in front of you, and follow them for about the next hour as they try to drink water from the dam, and take their turn getting glared at/threatened by the hippos instead.
If you’re interested in learning more about the bush, or becoming a qualified nature/wildlife guide, Ecotraining offers a range of courses, which you can read more about on their website.
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