The recovery of Africa’s southern square-lipped white rhinoceros over the last hundred years is one of the continent’s major success stories. Long may it last.
Close to extinction this time last century, numbering less than a hundred, they now boast a population of somewhere between 19,500 and 21,000. All living in southern Africa, with the vast majority holed up in South Africa.
The most recent white rhino experience I had was when visiting the UNESCO World Heritage listed Mosi Oa Tunya National Park on the upper Zambezi River. Without any warning, I almost fell upon this exciting enclave of a dozen white rhino. As these photos show, the animals are monitored and guarded, by a small collection of under-funded, enthusiastic and dedicated park rangers.
The rangers’ enthusiasm and obvious emotional engagement with each individual animal is infectious, and their understanding of each rhino’s character and behaviour patterns are essential to their very survival. As they carefully direct you on how to approach an animal on foot – safely – I for one was delighted to follow each of their nods and hand flicks. Even though I was aware of the white rhinos’ reputation for relative calmness, I felt extremely vulnerable when standing no more than twenty metres from their 1.8-2.5kg bulk.
Although hardly-bullet proof, the rangers’ monitoring of each rhino’s day-to-day movements does help protect the animals from local poachers.
However, with Zimbabwe’s political insecurity so much in the news recently, the worry is that the fragile balance of Africa’s wildlife conservation may be affected. When domestic politics hits an unstable period, protecting the environment and some of the most threatened wildlife often becomes a low priority.
The fact is that the resources required to restore rhino numbers are limited at the best of times. So when political will dissipates, the continued presence and financial support that tourism offers becomes essential.
Right now, any chance to clap eyes on this magnificent species should be grabbed. We could be the last generation to enjoy their very existence, thanks to the enormous efforts of southern Africa’s environmentalists who have so successfully safeguarded their white rhino numbers.