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What I learned in the trenches of a rhino translocation (Tanzania)

Alex Postman, Conde Nast Traveler | October 11, 2019

Read the original story here

“Hi, sweetheart,” coos Jennifer Conaghan, a rhino behavioral specialist from Australia, as she climbs a ladder to a catwalk over a wood-and-metal enclosure, or boma. Inside stand nine eastern black rhinoceroses, still ornery as they come off their tranquilizers following a 36-hour journey from South Africa to this shady slope by Tanzania’s Grumeti River. I tiptoe up the ladder behind Conaghan—one of the few women in this traditionally macho line of work—and crouch beside her.

Sharing a pen below us are Helaria, a rhino cow, and her 15-month-old calf, Otto. The calf makes a kazoo-like honk as Helaria lowers her head to check us out, stomping the ground with her muscular hind leg and shaking off a fly from her ear. The pair have grown more relaxed, observes Conaghan. It’s a marked change from the day before, when a restless bull named Eddie charged through the wall of the boma, introducing himself as just the second rhino now wandering free in the Ikorongo-Grumeti Game Reserve complex, a 350,000-acre buffer zone along the northern edge of Serengeti National Park.

Fifty years ago, Tanzania was home to more than 10,000 rhinos. But when poaching of the animal for its horn—prized in some cultures, predominantly Asian, for its medicinal value—escalated in the ’70s and ‘80s, rhinos from around the country were flown out, or “translocated,” to international zoos and safe havens. One of these was the private breeding farm of Thaba Tholo in South Africa, where these nine rhinos originated. Today the population of Tanzanian eastern blacks—smaller than their cousins, the more populous white rhino—has plummeted by 99 percent. Only 100 of the critically endangered animals are left in the country.

Rhino poaching remains a serious threat today; however, there’s been growing investment in conservation and in restoring ecosystems, as governments realize that a “wildlife economy” brings revenue and social benefits through tourism, infrastructure, and job creation. These efforts often include re-establishing animal populations in protected areas where they once roamed. But governments can’t undertake these large-scale projects alone, and so turn to partnerships with private organizations like the Grumeti Fund.

Original photo as published by Conde Nast Traveler: Only 100 eastern black rhinos are left in Tanzania. Courtesy Alex Postman

Founded by American billionaire Paul Tudor Jones with an annual operating budget of $4 to $5 million, the Grumeti Fund secured a 30-year lease from the Tanzanian government in 2002 on this former hunting concession with a vision of rewilding it under a management agreement with the Tanzania Wildlife Authority (TAWA).

The partners have seen great successes, with a fourfold increase in the elephant population, tenfold increase in buffalos, and one of the highest lion densities ever surveyed on the continent—all of which can be seen on game drives on one of the reserve’s five lodgings, run by luxury eco-safari brand Singita. But rhinos—foliage-eating “browsers” who help balance the ecosystem—have been the missing link, says Steven Cunliffe, Grumeti Fund’s executive director. During the hour-plus drive over a russet-dirt road from the NGO’s headquarters to Bangwesi Camp, where I’d be overnighting with the translocation team, he explained the Fund’s aim of establishing a breeding herd of 20 to 30 animals to repopulate the area: “They belong here.”

But it hasn’t been easy, requiring years of negotiation and cooperation with government ministers down to local commissioners, preparing an ideal habitat, and heightening security. Although two rhinos brought from zoos in 2007 and 2018 are happily roaming a nearby protected zone, last July, a male rhino flown in from a U.K. safari park died in transit. “Rhino deaths are the terrifying reality of translocation,” Cunliffe said. “The losses are the price you pay for being at the sharp end of conservation… . It is not for the faint of heart.”


I arrived at Bangwesi on a warm Thursday in early September, two days after the rhinos. During the animals’ 30-day government-mandated confinement, vigil is kept by a rotating Grumeti Fund cast including Cunliffe, conservation manager Matt Perry, and special projects head Grant Burden. There’s also a team of highly experienced specialists including Conaghan, the rhino whisperer, who took a leave from her job at a zoo park in New South Wales to join the project, and a trio of South African translocation experts. Kester Vickery, whose outfit Conservation Solutions is the go-to for animal transfers, and wildlife veterinarians Andre Uys and Dave Cooper, are all legends in the field, having caught and moved thousands of animals between them. The four of us sat down on the deck overlooking the lush riverine valley and the tall, slatted walls of the boma to discuss how the previous 48 hours went down. Occasionally a rhino snort or hoot broke the silence, punctuated by the thundering hoofs of wildebeest and zebra heading south on their migration route.

Vickery and his team had spent weeks at Thaba Tholo in South Africa, carefully selecting from among dozens of rhinos the 10 they would take, based on certain criteria: age (neither too young nor too old); gender (five males, including two one-year-old calves, and five females, one pregnant); physical vigor; and genetics. This was to be a homecoming of sorts: All are descendants of the very eastern black rhino that were removed from this area in the 1970s. The rhinos were darted, DNA tested for genetic purity, and moved with the help of a crane to holding pens to await the go-ahead.

On Monday morning, the team loaded the rhinos into 10.5×6.5×4.5 custom-made steel crates and conveyed them by truck into the cargo hold of a 747 chartered for the 4.5-hour flight to Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro airport, where government officials and media were awaiting their arrival. In flight, Cooper and Uys calibrated the tranquilizers and closely monitored the animals in their crates, then checked on the rhinos during scheduled stops on the trucks.

Even with such vigilance, it was discovered during the first leg of the trip that a male rhino had “got himself into a pickle in the crate,” as Uys put it, and died, likely due to stress. (An autopsy showed enlarged adrenal glands.) Such a loss is upsetting, of course, but it’s a factor in working with wild animals who can only be medically evaluated when tranquilized. “If you can’t think of anything you could have done better, as in this case, you’ve done everything you can,” Cooper said.

The nine remaining animals were then loaded in two shifts onto a C13 military plane to fly an hour to Grumeti’s narrow dirt airstrip. Delays at every stage are common—awaiting paperwork, loading and changing planes, while making stops on the road to check on the animals. “Time is our enemy because the longer you have an animal in the box, the bigger the risk,” said Vickery, a celebrity in the conservation world, having worked with Prince Harry on a translocation in Malawi, among other high-profile projects.

Once released into the boma, the rhinos are guarded 24/7 by a security team overseen by the Tanzanian Wildlife Authority. Conaghan visits several times a day, sing-songing her arrival to the acoustically sensitive rhinos so they don’t mistake her for a sneaky predator. She supervises their daily feedings on alfalfa, apples, nutrition-rich pellets, branches of local vegetation, and sausage tree fruit—the rhino equivalent of “chocolate treats.”

The time spent at camp is mostly a waiting game to ensure the rhinos are healthy and safe. Eddie, the rhino who busted out of the boma the previous morning, had been mock-charging the wall; the team agreed his self-liberation was probably for the best, given his high level of confinement-induced stress. “Our days are hours and hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer panic,” Uys noted with a laugh.

That afternoon, I went for a walk in the bush with the three South Africans and Nick Bester, a conservation manager from Grumeti Fund, who carried a shotgun on his shoulder. Following them through the riverbed in the late afternoon sun, I felt the full force of my city-girl ignorance as they pointed out African green pigeons and Lappet-faced vultures and chubby lion prints in the sand. Their jocular banter about past translocations—last year Uys flew an unprecedented 68 hours from San Diego to the Serengeti with a rhino named Eric; the time they moved 40 elephants in one day—betrayed the harsh realities of their work putting their lives on the line. Cooper described breaking his wrist punching a rhino (“It got to me before I could get up a tree”) and how he watched as a crated rhino unexpectedly jerked his head, impaling a coworker. Their bodies bear plenty of scars, some of them invisible: All described colleagues who suffer from PTSD as a result of their work, which can involve carrying out autopsies on multiple poached animal carcasses. As the sun sagged over the riverbank, we’d grown casual in our chatter when Vickery suddenly put up his hand, motioning for us to freeze. Bester cocked his gun. Inside a copse of trees, a buffalo, the testiest and most unpredictable animal in the bush, rustled a branch. We back-tracked silently.

The next 28 days will pass something like this, boredom interrupted by panic. At some point the vets will immobilize each of the rhino again to place electronic trackers into their horns and put them on the security grid—even Eddie, when he’s found. Then one day in early October, in the quiet of the afternoon, the three gates of the boma will lift and the rhinos will step out into the freedom of the Serengeti ecosystem.

Worth their Weight?

But the rhinos aren’t exactly out of the woods. If these nine creatures can survive and thrive, it will be thanks to years of groundwork laid out by the Grumeti Fund and their Tanzanian partners.

For one, there’s the matter of conserving their new home. The Ikorongo-Grumeti Game Reserve—with its dense vegetation and abundant water—is a rhino paradise, but keeping it that way requires the kind of effective management strategy that Matt Perry oversees here: stopping illegal livestock grazing, removing invasive plant species, building roads to access remote areas of the concession, and managing controlled burns of the grasslands to regenerate nutritious food.

For another, fending off a poaching free-for-all demands iron-clad security and law enforcement. That morning, I’d toured the Joint Operations Center, or JOC, with Alina Peter, its 29-year-old Tanzanian antipoaching ops coordinator. Outside, 20-foot towers of wire snares signal that poaching remains a menace. Within a series of small rooms pulsating with video monitors, Peter walked me through an FBI-caliber high-tech surveillance system called EarthRanger (created and funded by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s company Vulcan Inc.), which tracks frontline information from game scouts and mobile patrol units, as well as paramilitary-style special ops. I watched the canine anti-poaching unit of three rescue pups—two Belgian Malanois and one Chocolate Lab mix—pounce excitedly on a rhino horn hidden in an obstacle course. (The dogs are also trained to detect contraband like ivory, bush meat, and pangolin scales.) And I sat with Grumeti’s head of joint intelligence, who works closely with local law enforcement to interview poachers when they’re arrested, as he showed me his computer screen latticed with networks of poaching syndicates in a matrix worthy of Homeland.

With all that effort and risk and money, against a backdrop of an exploding African population and shrinking wild spaces, you can’t help but ask yourself whether it’s all worth it.

That night, after a dinner of barbecued beef and vegetables, the team sat around a roaring fire pit, sipping beers. Conversation turned to the question of whether the poaching crisis could be curbed by legalizing the selling of rhino horn—currently banned under international treaty. This would allow African governments to sell their considerable stockpiles of confiscated horn and flood the market, thereby lowering the price and, ideally, demand for a product that would lose its aura of exoticism. But if consumer demand were to rise, Cunliffe argues, it would become a gruesome experiment, effectively condemning the rhino to extinction in the wild.

“What we’re doing now isn’t working,” Kester says. “Even with all the educating and protecting, rhino poaching hasn’t stopped; it’s still plus-or-minus 1,000 a year, or 9,000 to 10,000 lost in the last decade. We’re fast losing our heritage.”

True, the poaching numbers tell a stark story. And yet the nine rhinos are tiny if crucial figures in a much broader picture that includes not just the ecological value of a restored and healthy ecosystem, from clean water to climate-change mitigation—though these are no small things. But crucially, they also bring tangible benefits to the 21 communities—roughly 85,000 people—surrounding the concession. Because for conservation to succeed, value must be created for those who live in closest proximity to the wildlife, not just the affluent visitors who come to see it from their kitted-out Land Rovers. With incentives to protect, these local guardians may be the rhinos’ salvation.

To that end, Grumeti’s community outreach arm works on a key aspect of the whole equation: education and jobs. This starts with a primary school wildlife program that will soon occupy a shiny new education center—for many kids, it’s not just their first taste of ownership of their national heritage, it’s their first time in the park. English immersion camps and girls’ empowerment workshops give youth vital skills, while a scholarship program that runs from secondary school to vocational training and university creates a pool of local talent for meaningful, well-paying jobs. And a rural enterprise program in local villages teaches small business skills, from marketing to finance, and incubates the most promising projects.

The same belief in long-term force multipliers—a new business venture that earns a villager enough to bring his family out of poverty; a poacher who comes to understand that wild animals are worth more alive than dead and pivots to become a conservation manager—is what makes these incremental gains on the ground worth pursuing. They just require faith and patience.

“We moved nine rhinos,” Vickery says, finally. “It may seem insignificant to some people, but each of these animals is critical. In years to come, those nine could be a hundred. That’s what makes this all worth it.”

How to See the Rhinos

Rhino are elusive and solitary. But for a chance to glimpse the rhinos in a vast, semi-private landscape that’s ground zero for the Great Migration, and to experience a canine anti-poaching unit demonstration at Grumeti Fund HQ, stay at one of Singita Grumeti’s five lodgings. Pick from Sasakwa, the Edwardian-style manor house; Faru-Faru, a modern, low-key lodge; Sabora Tented Camp, modeled on a 1920’s-style explorer’s camp; and Explore, a private-use tented camp with just enough luxury touches. Serengeti House is a private home that can be rented for exclusive use.