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SOS Rhino : In the News :  Conserving Danny, Hector and Chinga - Botswanaís Rhinos

Conserving Danny, Hector and Chinga - Botswanaís Rhinos
February 12, 2003

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton
Serowe, Botswana

What you first notice about Danny and his friend is their size. They are huge, and surprisingly nimble and graceful in movement. No, not sumo wrestlers, but rhinos.

Danny and Hector are white rhinoceroses at Khama Rhino Sanctuary, a community conservation project, near Serowe in central Botswana. They are two of a herd of 21 rhinos currently in residence at the reserve, alongside a range of other animals imported onto the land. These include hartebeest, wildebeest, zebra, ostrich, eland, gemsbock and springbok, to name but a few.

Named after Khama the Great, a wildlife enthusiast and revered one-time ruler of the Batswana back in the 1880s (whose grandson, Sir Seretse Khama, became independent Botswana’s first leader), the rhino sanctuary is partly funded by the UN Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) Small Grants Programme.

Kicking up a little dust, and stamping gently, to show the visitors just who is in charge, Danny and his playmate then proceed to ignore binoculars, whirring cameras, oohs and ahs and gasps of admiration.

Both the young bulls, like most male rhinos, are instinctively territorial, says Bathusi Letlhare, the chief warden at Khama,.

To mark their patch of ground, the rhinos repeatedly defaecate in a specific area and spray urine and scrape with their horns to warn off would be intruders, namely other bull rhinos.

" They can mark territory every hundred yards up to 5 kilometres," says Letlhare, but the rhinos only allow other males of their species to transit through their stamping ground if they need access to a watering hole.

Over at the 'boma’(a Swahili word borrowed from Kenya, meaning animal kraal or homestead) is Chinga, also nervously staking out some space. She is the new girl on the block and is about seven years old. Chinga takes her name from the area of Botswana where she was found and is the latest arrival and addition to the crew at Khama Rhino Sanctuary.

Chinga is also the exception at the reserve, indeed in the country.

Unlike Danny and Hector, she is a prized black rhino and the only one of her kind currently (legally) in Botswana, said Letlhare, the head ranger at the sanctuary. He reckoned Chinga probably came from across the border from South Africa or from the Chobe National Park.

The reserve's original batch of five white rhinos arrived at Khama sanctuary in 1995. Their southern neighbour provided another five and another 3 joined the breeding herd in 1998. 11 rhino calves born in the next five years made Khama home to the largest white rhino population in Botswana.

They may technically be black or white, but to the casual observer, Danny, Horace and Chinga all look grey. "Sometimes they take the colour of their last wallow or the colour of the soil they are in," Letlhare said laughing. It depends on whether they have wallowed in black mud or white sand or red earth!

But white rhinos are bigger than their black counterparts and weigh more, between 1600 to 2000 kg. And in the rhino world, your colour matters. If you are black, you fetch more money, Letlhare told a group of journalists from United Nations radio, and an allAfrica reporter, during a visit coordinated by the UN Development Programme. He said each white rhino sold for up to 100,000 pula (over US$18,000) in the local currency. People pay up to double that figure for a black rhino, and anywhere up to 300,000 pula.

White rhinos are 'grazers’, eating grass. Black rhinos are 'browsers’, consuming tree leaves and they have what Letlhare described as "narrow, prehensile lips for nibbling shoots of trees."

Clearly suspicious of a bus full of tourists, and warily watching developments beyond the confines of her 'boma', Chinga makes as if to charge the gate which is fashioned from solid tree trunks and bolted down with hefty nails. Ominously dipping and raising her mighty head and curved horn, as if poised for a 50 metre dash, she suddenly changed her mind and posed for the clicking cameras instead. Letlhare is hoping they will soon get a black rhino mate for her from South Africa or Zimbabwe.

Were it not for Khama Rhino Sanctuary, these giant herbivores might have become a thing of the past in Botswana and relegated to the natural history books.

Years ago, as a boy, the warden reminisced, he spotted a black rhino about 20km west of Serowe. He put the population of rhinoceros back in the 1960s at "probably 500". By 1990, a wildlife census found only six rhinos in the wild, in the Chobe area of Botswana.

" This country used to have lots of both black and white rhinos, particularly in the northern part of the country, in the Chobe area, in the Delta and even in the eastern part," said the head ranger. "But due to over-hunting and poaching, the rhinos came close to extinction. The communities here decided to put up this project and the main participating communities are from Paje, Mabelapudi and Serowe. We felt that it would be a good thing to set up a safe place for rhinos here. That is why we have this project."

Letlhare said it was worth noting that, "of the five rhinos originally captured in Chobe and brought here, one of them came [wounded] with poachers’ bullets! When the Wildlife Department was tracking it to catch it, poachers were actually tracking it from the other end. It didn’t survive and died a few weeks after its arrival here."

The attraction and reported medicinal properties of rhino horn make it a much desired commodity, especially in the Far East. Powdered horn is popular to combat "asthma and other ailments," said Letlhare. In parts of Yemen, he remarked, rhino horn is prized for use in the elaborate dagger handles.

The chief warden added that the rhinos and other wildlife at Khama were all especially brought to the sanctuary. The native animal residents of the reserve are kudu, duiker (both kinds of buck) and brown hyena.

Letlhare was keen to stress that "an important thing about this project is that we don’t only conserve rhinos. We have also reintroduced other species that used to occur here and that were actually driven out or hunted to extinction in this area. They were driven away because of human population pressure and livestock pressure."

Newer additions to the sanctuary include giraffe, eland, gemsbok, wildebeest and impala. Waterbuck have recently been reintroduced. There are also predators such as leopards and wild dogs at Khama. "And we have sighted even the cheetah here," said Letlhare. "We have other smaller predators like jackals and caracal and African wild cats."

In the next five years, Khama Sanctuary should reach its maximum carrying capacity of 30 white rhinos and hopes then to begin reintroducing them into the wild.

The reserve has another string to its bow. Khama is currently running an environmental educational programme and is busy constructing an instruction facility, funded by the European Union.

Letlhare underscored the importance of education at the sanctuary. This, he said, offered great opportunities to local and international groups of school children and created environmental awareness, while contributing to biodiversity in Botswana.

Sixteen local people are employed at the sanctuary from neighbouring villages. There is also a market for handicrafts produced in the area as well as other parts of Botswana, which Letlhare called a "bonus for communities in this country".

Tourism is also encouraged. About 8,000 visitors pass through Khama Rhino Sanctuary each year, generating enough continuing income to cover staff salaries, maintenance, vehicle repairs, borehole construction etc.

And security is tight. An electric fence and security towers, as well as motorised patrols and patrols on foot and on horseback are an essential part of the running of the reserve. Staff are expected to be alert and, so far, there has been no successful poaching at the sanctuary.

All this may be lost on Chinga, Danny and Horace as they continue to enjoy the benefits of a privileged life at Khama, wallowing in mud and showing off their magnificent horns, unaware that their presence in Botswana now seems secure, thanks to projects like the Khama rhino sanctuary.



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