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SOS Rhino : In the News : On Patrol for Rhino in Kenya's Tsavo National Park
 

On Patrol for Rhino in Kenya's Tsavo National Park

 

By David Stirling

TSAVO EAST NATIONAL PARK, Kenya, April 16, 2003 (ENS) - It is immensely satisfying to lie on one's back and stare at the hundreds of star constellations. Sadly I'm ignorant of the vast majority and my eyes always fall on Orion's Belt, high in the sky early in the evening and easily identifiable. This time, however, a loud ripping noise focuses my attention on the darkness in front of me. It's not pitch black - the moon is almost full - and I see a family of elephants, no more than 50 feet away, moving stealthily through the swamp. Unperturbed by our mosquito nets or the inhabitants inside, they continue feeding and move towards the water at the far end of the swamp.

I lie back and observe the thin gauze that marks the boundary between my territory and the territory of whatever is out there! Content that neither of us will overstep the mark, I fall into a deep sleep. When I wake again it is the middle of the night. I hear the incongruous whooping of a hyaena in the distance, and soon after the spine-chilling grunt and roar of lion. This is a sound that stays with you forever, and you can be deceived into thinking it is very close. In fact, a lion's roar travels great distances - usually they will be several kilometers away.

Familiar with these sounds I drift back to sleep, only to be woken again at dawn by a cacophony of singing birds: mainly doves and hornbills, but interspersed with turacos, boobies and weavers. It is a delightful alarm clock and signals the start of our patrol with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers of Tsavo East, who have allowed us to join them for three days.

Over the past 18 months, Tsavo East has had a poaching problem. Rhinos and elephants have once again become the victims of Somali gangs. In response, Richard Kech has been brought in to troubleshoot. This he has done with extreme efficiency - seven poachers now lie dead, and some sort of normality has returned to the park.

But Kech's work is not finished. Although he has reached the KWS's retirement age, he is keen to complete the job and set up a monitoring unit to identify individual rhinos. This task has been complicated by the mess left by Kech's predecessor. Unmotivated and leaderless, the rangers were caught with their pants down. The poachers had never had it so easy, and within months seven rhinos were dead. Even now, many more are unaccounted for. Worse still, the identification records of individual animals dating from their transfer here - 53 were translocated over a 10 year period - have mysteriously disappeared, making an accurate count almost impossible.

Ben and I arrived laden with meat from Uchumi supermarket in Nairobi. We were welcome guests. An African will always prefer to boil his meat so he can reheat it in the morning and use it again that evening, but Ben saved the cutlets from the water and we gently fried them on the open fire. Serving them with the staple dish, ugali, we ate in contented silence. Fresh meat is a scarce commodity in Tsavo, and the rangers' appreciation was summed up by Kech, who declared he was fed like a gorged tick!

The patrol - a multi-tribal affair consisting of Kalanjin, Maasai, Kikuyu, Luo and Samburu - sets off in one of Save the Rhino International's donated vehicles. For the next three hours, we bump along a track north of the Galana River, looking for rhino spoor. Their range here is a vast 4,000 square kilometers, and a good vehicle is crucial. Whenever we come across footprints, however faint, we get out and follow them. The bush is thick at ground level; the subtle colors of the different acacias bring life to this vast wilderness, which from the air can be mistaken for drab scrub. Rifles are held at the ready, not so much for poachers as for the odd, irate male buffalo that may be lurking in the bush ahead.

We skirt around a herd of elephant and follow the tell-tale signs of rhino that have passed through here - browsing signs on acacia bushes; dung scrape, most noticeable where males have kicked it around to mark their territory. No rhino this time, and we drive on in search of fresher tracks. Camp is usually set up deep in the bush. Once it's prepared, a patrol scouts the surrounding perimeter. At dusk a meal is cooked, and soon after I crawl under my net with a dangerously full stomach. As I lie there marvelling at the simplicity of this way of life, I drift off - not to the sounds of the cicadas, but to an assortment of radios the rangers secrete in their tents and play most of the night.

The following day sees much the same routine, but this continuous presence, coupled with communications with the rangers at observation posts around the park, means that poachers have to be extra-vigilant if they want to go unnoticed.

We climb a hill to scout a new observation post and walk for a few hours in a wide arc back to our camp; no fresh spoor, but plenty of scrape and evidence of browsing rhino. The range is so huge, finding rhino is extremely difficult.

The sun is terrifyingly hot by early afternoon and we seek shade at the Galana River. Unperturbed by tales of crocodile attacks, Ben dives headlong into the main stream. I, on the other hand, bath gingerly in the shallows, keeping an eye out for that bow wave approaching. Confident that no crocodiles inhabit this stretch of water, the rangers strip off and soon the water is a mass of soapy bubbles and laughter. As soon as we all get out, Kech lets down his guard and rather self-consciously submerges.

We move camp this afternoon, and in the process go on patrol. Again, no rhino but plenty of signs. Although it would be a bonus to come across one, I'm happy that they remain elusive. They have had a stressful couple of years and they're not about to show themselves for us. Walking great distances, usually by night, they are dispersed all over this vast park. Just so long as they keep their heads down, and the KWS sees this free ranging population of rhinos as a top priority, giving the unit the resources it needs to look after them, I think the rhino here have every chance of increasing their numbers.

Panic after the poaching has precipitated talks about building a sanctuary within Tsavo East, but I see that move as a desperate and expensive one to be discouraged.

Save the Rhino currently pays US$6,400 per year for fuel and maintenance for one of the patrol vehicles in Tsavo East National Park. The vehicle transfers rangers between the three patrols and the six fixed observation posts, and provides camps with fresh water and food supplies. In an emergency, as with a poaching incident on January 31, 2003, vehicles help the rhino rangers get to trouble spots quickly, from where they pursue the poachers on foot. In the January incident - the first for a year - one poacher was shot and killed, another captured, while the third got away.

Day three, and I have to catch a flight from Nairobi to London in the evening. We leave early and drive back to the rhino camp. Kech bids us farewell and privately tells me how important to morale our few days with the rangers have been. He urges us to return sometime in this coming year before he retires. As we drive out of the park and enter another world, I consider what Kech said about boosting morale and I reflect how reciprocal the arrangement has been. I now feel ready to go home.

{David Stirling is project advisor with Save the Rhino International, based in London, England, and online at: http://www.savetherhino.com}


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