By Jonathan A. Benaiah (The Ugandan Tourist)
Down on my knees begging to be excused for this lengthy episode of silence. Thanks for sticking with me, it means the world to me and I am so glad to be back to share my recent visit to Uganda’s Rhinos.
Been a while since I dropped a blogpost here, partly because 2017 has been a complete roller coaster of this and that; and my mind has been on this relentless life journey of new discoveries. I’ll just call it the year of kit and caboodle. It’s perhaps the reason why when I went to the doctor the other day to get a health check, I sadly tested negative on everything. Okay maybe I should be thankful that they weren’t positives. It’s that feeling of fatigue which hauntingly communicates to me a need for some travel therapy. Thank heavens, Christmas is here!
One of the mostly used Luganda proverbs goes… “Okutambula kulaba, okudda kunyumya”, which loosely translates to mean “Traveling opens your mind to the unknown, turning you into a story teller on your way home”.
Well, the last couple of days in November 2017 and the first week of December 2017 had me tasked with coordinating 2 group fam trips for members of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) to the only point in Uganda where one can see Rhino roaming freely in a tightly surveilled natural habitat, the Ziwa Rhino and Wildlife Sanctuary.
I had heard about Ziwa and I had gone past the turnoff point quite a number of times on trips to some favorite tourism spots in northern Uganda, but I had never devoted time to take that well-rewarding detour to the natural home of Uganda’s 21 Southern White Rhino, I just didn’t think it was worth the visit. Probably the reason many Ugandan tour operators just drive their clients past the turnoff or sell the rhino experience as an optional add-on to a safari to the neighboring Murchison Falls National Park, often done on the voyage back to Kampala.
We set off from Wandegeya (a Kampala suburb) driving for about 3 hours along the Kampala – Gulu Highway, a 179 kilometer journey (approx. 100 miles) that had us enjoy the usual tastes of Uganda’s roadside 3 course meal, the meat on skewers and gonja (roasted plantain) that kept our energies at the right level. Okay let’s just call them snacks today, I’ll explain the 3-course meal concept in another write-up.
We soon made sight of an assembly of road signs (at Nakitoma trading centre) pointing to a dirt road on which we traveled for another 5 kilometers past the main entrance to the sanctuary and quickly arrived at the reception which also doubled as the guest briefing area.
Did I skip the bit where we were asked to confirm payment at the entrance? Well I actually didn’t. This particular trip was largely complimentary, and we only had to meet the transport costs of getting to the sanctuary and back Kampala. It’s partly what qualifies it for a fam trip, familiarization trip in full. Thanks to Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary for hosting us.
“Welcome to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Raymond Opio our head guide, together with his team will lead you through the rhino trekking experience and when you return from the muddy bush I will make a short presentation about our Rhino Sanctuary as well as Rhino conservation at large”. These were welcoming remarks from a seemingly relaxed but convivial Ange, as we got off the bus, stretched our legs and headed to a little shed for the routine briefing.
With South African roots, but a heart won by Uganda’s wild places, Ange Genade is the current Executive Director of Rhino Fund Uganda, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that was founded in 1997, in partnership with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, with the mandate of repopulating Uganda with wild rhinos which had since been declared extinct throughout the whole of Uganda in 1983, following an episode of civil strife.
Now set on a piece of land owned by Captain Joe Roy, this fenced off wildlife sanctuary not only provides home to 21 southern white rhino, but has also attracted many other wildlife species including warthogs and bushbucks. The guides will tell you that there are also leopards roaming the 7,000 hectares that form the Ziwa Rhino & Wildlife Sanctuary, so you don’t want to go on a careless solo wander, lest you risk bumping into a wild animal.
Following the introduction of a female and male rhino to the Entebbe Zoo, now known as the Uganda Wildlife Education Center (UWEC), the first six southern white rhinos were translocated in 2005/6, with four from Kenya, and two from Disney Animal Kingdom (USA) to the current day Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary – a total of 3 male and 3 female Rhino.
Speaking so passionately, Ange thinks it was a huge mistake to have balanced sexes, as this scientifically does not make sense. This argument kind of links to the fact that in a normal world, the males are often less than females but I am not a scientist and I don’t intend to become one. At least not in the near future. Perhaps this adds to several other questions that I’ll ask God when I get to heaven, why are females more in number when compared to the males? Whatever science dictates, I still struggle to understand but one thing I did grasp is that Ange and her team are working tirelessly to correct it through the years. She mentioned that they are only delayed by a few obstructs principally the Uganda Rhino Strategy, which has also delayed the translocation of 6 more rhinos donated to Uganda by the South African government.
Saving the depth of details on rhino birth, characteristics, feeding behavior and whatever facts you might have heard of or read about on the internet, I prefer to leave that discussion to a presentation by the team at Ziwa when you visit.
Shocking Rhino Poaching Facts!
Did you know that the number of rhinos poached every year exceeds the number 1071, that’s about 3 rhino killed for their horn every 24 hours?
Did you also know that there are between 19,666 and 21,085 White rhino, between 5,040 and 5,458 Black rhino, slightly over 3,500 Greater one-horned rhino, only 100 Sumatran rhino and shockingly only 67 Javan rhino? The total number of rhinos is around 29,292 much less than the 500,000 rhinos that roamed the earth in the early 20thDid you know that Rhino horn is more expensive than gold, selling like hot cake in Asia for amounts even up to $100,000 (approx. 360 million Uganda Shillings)?
Did you also know that Rhino horn when ground up is believed to cure everything from diabetes to colds to cancer, hangovers, and also serves as an aphrodisiac? But this remains complete “mumble jumble”. The material in Rhino horn (keratin) is the very same substance in human hair and nails as well as in the hooves of horses?
Each time I am out in the bush, I can’t help but marvel at the remarkable works of the creator, and our stroll through the bush on foot, that one Thursday mid-morning was not short of grandeur. We set out on a hunt for at least a glance at one rhino crush (name for a rhino family) but we got served with the complete package – some light body exercises, a live short rhino breast feeding skit (if that’s what it’s called in Rhino language) and luckily got to see the youngest rhino in Uganda, the cute little Madam with her mother Laloyo. Okay maybe not so little; at 3 months, she was about the size of an adult Ankole cow. Let the photos not fool you, we are discussing baby giants here, and more specifically the largest land mammal on earth after the elephant, yes, bigger than the hippopotamus.
My bush highlight was when we arrived at this family of three, a male and a mother with her young. As members of the crew were struggling for photo moments in front of the sleepy rock-like mammals, it happened! All of a sudden they were up on their feet in a threatening punch-up between the mom and the dad, and of course as the proverbial avowal goes, the grasses below suffered their wrath.
“The mother is sending the big guy away from the calf”, our guide explained. Could it have been the pregnancy “mood swings” that often compel ladies to lock their baby daddies out? Questions in my head.
Well to cut the long story short, the male raced off into the bush leaving us with his wife and the little one, an absolute rare photo moment. It’s funny how we completely forgot the possibility that Mr. Big Guy would race out of the bush from an unknown direction at the usual 46 kilometers per hour. Thank God that didn’t happen!
With sweat-written foreheads and heavy legs, we returned to the briefing base for the final presentation by Ange on rhino conservation and the successes of Rhino Fund Uganda.
I rarely end stories on a low, but here is one. “I didn’t like the food at Amuka Lodge”. Well maybe I just didn’t comprehend what I was eating. Okay, let’s just say I am a “meateterian”, whatever the opposite of vegetarian is. A pottage of pumpkin, carrots, cheese and whatever ingredients there were didn’t work, my taste buds just didn’t get it. It was perhaps more “stomach-confusing” for the other members of the team who sarcastically labeled the dish “Vegetable Tanzania”, closely rhythmical with the actual name I got from the resident chef when I asked… “Vegetable Lasagna” it was. Fortunately, we knew could make up for our misery with some meat on skewers on our way back to Kampala, so the grumbling was controlled.
All in all, I am quite confident any visitor on a trip to Uganda with the littlest interest in African Big Five will enjoy the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, and if it is a conservationist the will fall head over heels in love for this initiative. Food or no food, I’d gladly recommend a visit to the Sanctuary, for that one rare up-close “on-foot encounter” with a few of the world’s remaining rhinos.
The sanctuary also offers guided shoebill treks and canoe rides, birding walks, aardvark and pangolin walks as well as the guided night walks which present many nocturnal animals and who knows what you might bump into… a Leopard possibly!
Hit me up in the comment box if you need some details on this particular experience, how you can engage in it and what kind of costs you’re looking at. I’ll be glad to advise where I can. And please do not hesitate to let me know if you found this interesting. Feeling lazy? You can still just drop an emoji in the comment box below.
Till next time, I remain yours truly…