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SOS Rhino : In the News : Making a big impression on rhinos

Making a big impression on rhinos

  (Filed: 30/12/2003)

The work of the Tusk Trust in Kenya is devoted to showing that animals are more valuable alive than dead, writes Alistair McGowan

I'm not a traveller. I've never "been travelling". I didn't have "a year off". I like going away but my idea of "going away" is a few days in Europe. At most, a week. By a pool. In Sicily. So, when I was asked to go to Africa by the BBC, I was more than a little reluctant.

Animal magic: Tusk Trust strives hard to protect endangered species

It was for a wildlife programme, too – something, perhaps unfairly, that I've always thought celebrities do when their careers are, to say the least, in a state of flux. But as I looked down the fax, wondering how to get out of this one, a word leapt out at me – "conservation".

For years, I'd been badgering the BBC to do more conservation programmes, showing how every little thing we do in our wasteful consumer world has an impact somewhere else. So much environmental damage is due to nothing more than ignorance. Why not do something together to dispel that ignorance, instead of endlessly showing people how to cover bits of their houses in MDF? No deal.

So, when I saw the "c" word, I thought, "I have to do this." I can't just keep writing cheques – useful though that is.

The rhino was to be the focus of this trip. I'd been asked to go to Kenya to help the conservation charity Tusk Trust, one of the beneficiaries of this year's Telegraph Christmas Appeal. We were to move two white rhinos from one of its projects - a sanctuary, where the animals were thriving - to another, where they were not.

There were many things to be frightened of on this trip, if you're the worrying sort. I am - and I was. As well as the long flight to Nairobi, there was also the threat of the short onward flight to Lewa. Having survived both, I began to feel a little easier about the forthcoming 10 days. The machines hadn't got me - now it was only the animals who might.

And what a litany of those there were. I had been urged to buy all sorts of creams and sprays, as well as having more pins stuck in me than a lottery ticket, in order to allay any danger of getting meningitis, typhoid, yellow fever, red fever, blue fever, green fever, or of having rabies, scabies or babies, while I was "in the bush".

However, I was told that the daily malaria tablets I was taking did not afford 100 per cent protection. "So, how do I avoid getting malaria?" I asked, like a fool. "Just make sure you don't get bitten," I was told.

After the two flights, we were ushered into a fume-filled Land Rover with green canvas seat covers. I hadn't been in one of those since I used to pick plums in the Vale of Evesham as a teenager. The familiar smell and the alien environment made me wish I was back there.

Here was nature en masse. Vast plains, endless broken trees and unbroken sky, mountains upon mountains in the distance and yet all of it somehow untouchable - it was nature red in tooth, claw and sting, best seen from the safety of the vehicle.

I longed to lie in the dust or to be out on my bike, feeling Africa on me, but as soon as we turned a corner into our first herd of elephants, I was glad of our khaki carapace. Our guides knew the animals - how to read their every move, how to see the first sign of concern in them and the first sign of danger to us.

People had told me I'd fall in love with Africa instantly. It hadn't happened yet but, as we sat there in elephant awe, I was certainly falling in love with Africa's animals.

On our way to the elephants, we had passed zebras grazing in black and white striped gangs, like Newcastle United fans gathering outside the city's pubs before a match. We had seen the overlooked beauty of the impala, the disguised elegance of the giraffe, the comical sprinting of the dik-dik and the shiny blue "superb starlings", like something out of an early, proper, Disney film. This was a wildlife wonderland.

But I wasn't in Kenya just to look at the animals; I was here to help re-locate them. Lewa is a wildlife "conservancy", supported by Tusk. This huge sanctuary for animals, many of which are seriously endangered, is run by Ian Craig, an amazing man with a heart as big as a helicopter.

Having been a hunter himself, he has since become aware of the parlous state of wildlife, and now his every breath is taken with a view to protecting and furthering their survival. He knows every animal here, every tree, every bump in the road and every one of the staff who help him run this huge, quasi-military operation.

The basic premise is to make animals valuable - and more valuable alive than dead. Ian saw that the animals were at risk from the community, as well as from poachers. The local Masai tribes were also killing any wildlife that could pose a threat to their cattle. Now, however, the Masai have been made aware of the possibility that the animals could face extinction, that there is money to be made from keeping them alive, and that shooting with cameras is better than shooting with guns.

Many of the villagers now work for Ian and his team as security guards protecting their animals from Somali poachers - who still see the violent seizure of skins, horns and tusks as a means of subsisting. The Masai also work as staff at the tourist lodges and act as guides on safari, and the whole community receives a large percentage of the profits from tourism.

It's a good deal for everyone - the tourists, the locals and the animals. But the costs are huge, and because of the bewilderingly stubborn demand for rhino horn, which is used in Chinese medicine and for making Yemeni dagger handles, the threat of poaching is still very real.

Also, stabilising numbers is one thing. Increasing the number of rhinos to a healthy level and returning Africa to the wildlife-rich continent it once was is another. It takes time and money; every animal's life is so valuable and so precious. There is a lot of bad work to be undone.

The tourists at the different lodges also want to see as many animals as possible. That is one of the reasons why, with the help of Tusk Trust, we're moving our rhinos from Ian's Lewa Conservancy to the nearby, Masai-run area Il Ngwesi.

On the day of the move, I'm with Ian in the front vehicle, the trusty Land Rover - with the door that won't shut properly (on his side, I'm pleased to say). Our cameraman, Andrew, sits behind me. He is an Africa veteran and is full of stories of how some colleagues have been bitten on the toe by bats and subsequently lost their feet, how others have been turned over in vehicles by bull elephants. He hasn't - yet - heard any stories about impressionists getting gored through Land Rover doors by angry rhinos.

Ian has asked me to hold his gun for him; it's the closest I've ever been to a gun and it feels scarily cold in the heat of the bush. This gun, however, will not be firing bullets but a tranquilliser dart. The dose will not harm the animal. It will just feel like a bit of gas and air, but it is still enough of a dose to kill a man. As we lurch over the bumpy ground, I do my utmost to keep the trigger away from the gear stick.

Coming upon the rhinos, I'm amazed how powerful they are. In photographs, they just look, well, fat. Now they look hugely, impressively strong. It's two tons of muscle, not flab.

We come in peace, but being followed by a lurching vehicle with a heavily sweating impressionist and a man with a tranquilliser gun hanging out of the window would spook anyone. And the rhinos are spooked.

Ian manoeuvres until he has a good angle and finally shoots a pink-tipped dart into the thick skin of one of the beasts. It trots off sideways, like a slapped cat. In a drug-crazed act of defiance, it lurches towards the vehicle - on my side. It's barely a metre away, making an extraordinary, leathery breezing noise and looking for all the world as if it's going to give Andrew his "rhino rammed its horn through the door and killed our presenter" story, when, suddenly, it falls to the ground.

Ian and his 18-strong team leap into action. The swooning animal is first fitted with a radio transmitter so that its future whereabouts can be monitored. Then, after a series of ropes are attached to its feet, the drug is reversed and he is unwittingly pulled into a huge crate, which is then pushed and tugged up clattering ramps on to the back of a lorry.

There is something charmingly Heath Robinson about the whole business. I don't know what I expected but it seems so basic and, at the same time, so clever. It's also hugely expensive.

The process is repeated with a second rhino and then the convoy begins its two-hour journey to Il Ngwesi. The roads are impossibly bumpy and the crates lurch from side to side. Our stomachs and heads take a battering, too - I'm beginning to wish I'd had the gas and air. But two hours later, we're delivering two rhinos to their new home. They are the first to be seen at Il Ngwesi in 40 years.

What we have seen is a blueprint for the future of Africa and, in some ways, for the world. The Masai have adapted their lifestyle to preserve a natural order, to ensure the survival of a species. I learnt to adapt to Africa and ended up loving the way of life. And I think that "adapting" is the key word here. We all have to start to adapt our lifestyle - it's not difficult - and think about putting the planet first. Before it's too late.