Stopping at the top, Leon, our guide and driver, points out roaming elephants far off in the valley below. We step out and walk over to the edge. The lush green landscape reminds me of a scene from Jurassic Park—minus the dinosaurs. Zebras and kudu, as well as elephants, meander by a twisting river that zigzags its way to a distant horizon. As the bright hot sun pierces a clear blue sky, an untouchable, subconscious energy seems to flow in and around us. It’s a connection with nature one doesn’t find at the city zoo. Everything here is unconstrained by signs, fences or steel bars.
The cameras click and we all head back to the jeep to continue our journey along the winding roads of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park.
With the October 2005 creation of Camdeboo National Park, there are now 22 national parks in South Africa. Kruger Park is the best known and, at 1.9 million hectares, by far the largest. There are plans to expand its borders into Mozambique and Zimbabwe, which would create the worlds’ largest trans-frontier park. South Africa also features scores of wildlife and nature reserves, both public and private. These too showcase the spectacular beauty of the country’s wilderness areas and rich diversity of its flora and fauna, but draw fewer visitors. Over one million visitors passed through Kruger in 2005, as opposed to 250,000 for Hluhluwe (pronounced “ShushLooey”).
Joined by a connecting corridor in 1989, they became one large park of 96,000 hectares which today is home to some 350 varieties of birds and more than 80 species of mammal. Over the past two decades, the park has gained a reputation as one of the best places to see Africa’s Big Five—lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros. Particularly rhinos, but there were times when such a boast seemed highly unlikely. The park is located in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, in central Zululand, the name a reminder of the region’s turbulent history.
By the 20th century, hunting was hardly the only problem. When nagana, an often fatal disease transmitted by tsetse flies, infected cattle on farms adjacent to the park, farmers blamed the wildlife as the source. A massive slaughter ensued and during the 1930s and ’40s, some 100,000 animals from over a dozen species were systemically killed.
Today, however, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is virtually the world’s breeding ground for the white rhino, a crowning achievement that has taken more than 50 years of fierce conservation management. Thanks largely to the renowned Operation White Rhino, begun after the park came under the jurisdiction of the new KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service in 1952, the animals’ numbers have gone from just a few dozen in the early 1900s, to nearly 2,000 today, with another 3,500 relocated to other parts of Africa and the world. In 1994, the southern white rhino became the first species to be World Conservation Union’s “critically endangered” list (it’s listed today as “lower risk conservation dependent). Meanwhile, the park has become the place to see these magnificent animals. As our guide wagers, “If we don’t see more than one, I’ll put my head on a chopping block.”
Our vehicle’s radio suddenly squawks, and Leon picks up the receiver to heavy static and a faint human voice. After a quick chat, he tells us that rhinos have been spotted on one of the side roads. After making a 10-point U-turn on the narrow track, we race off in the direction we came, leaving dust in our wake. Wheeling around a corner, we bump along one of the many adjoining roads that spread out like dirt cobwebs throughout the park. Twenty eyes are peeled in every direction.
Driving over a rise in the road, Leon stops suddenly. A massive Cape buffalo with testicles the size of a human head stands blocking our route little more than a car length away. Covered in flies and glistening with fresh mud, it stares us down—and wins. We watch in fascination as it looks at us for a minute, then slowly swaggers off the road and disappears into the underbrush.
We’re here during the summer rainy season. Finding animals when the foliage is flourishing and there are lots of watering holes can be more challenging than in the winter or dry season, when plants thin out and watering holes shrink. “You can just park at one of the few holes and sit and wait for the different animals to converge,” says Leon. “In the rainy season, you’ll see fewer animals, but the bonus is that, when you do see them, they are often with their babies.” Leon hits the clutch and we drive off with hopes high that we will not only see a rhino, but one with its calf.
There are five rhino species in all: the Indian, Javan and Sumatran from Asia, and the black and white rhino from Africa. Despite the relative comeback of the white rhino, and programs that have helped the Indian population grow from just 600 animals in 1975 to almost 3,000 today, conservationists warn that as a group, rhinos are still among the world’s most threatened animals. The Asian population, says the World Wildlife Fund, is “distressingly small” and massive efforts are needed to keep extinction at bay. And with just an estimated 3,600 black rhinos still roaming the grasslands and savannahs of Africa, they too remain on the critically endangered list. Estimates for the total number of rhinos remaining worldwide range from 10,000 to 19,000, but in either case, it’s a fraction of what their numbers were as recently as the 1970s.
As with most animal species, the decrease is mostly the result of human interference. Ironically, the white rhino’s near annihilation a century ago is the reason for the profoundly different fortunes of the two African species. When its then-meager population was being herded onto protective reserves, especially in South Africa, where conservation practices were providing conditions suitable for breeding, the black was left to fend off hunters and poachers on its own, mostly in eastern, central and southern Africa.
The rhino’s horn is the problem. It is highly valued in certain parts of the world for medicinal and cultural reasons, and has been for a very long time. According to Bagheera, an educational website about endangered species, in the 5th century B.C,. rhino horn was thought capable of rendering some poisons harmless. In Borneo, people used to hang a rhino’s tail in the room where a woman was giving birth, believing it would ease labour pains. And even today there’s a big market in the Far East, China especially, for powdered horn because many people think it can reduce fever and offset illnesses like epilepsy and AIDS.
Even so, the black rhino population seemed to be holding relatively steady. Then in the 1970s, their numbers suddenly started to plummet. They had become surprise victims of the decade’s infamous energy crisis. Rhino horn had long been prized for handles for the jambiya, a curved dagger that is a symbol of wealth and epitomizes manhood in Yemen. With the Middle East afloat in petrol dollars thanks to soaring oil prices, growing numbers of young men suddenly had the means to afford rhino horn. It remains a highly coveted material.
Although international trade in rhino horn is now banned, the law of supply and demand makes it extremely profitable on the black market. Reliable figures on illegally traded goods can be notoriously hard to come by, but in 1990, two horns from a single black rhino fetched a reported $50,000 US. It’s a huge incentive to poaching. The majority of Africa’s remaining black and white rhinos are located in the southern African countries of Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. And now they too are coming under increasing pressure to satisfy the illegal trade in rhino horn.
Unlike most horns, rhino horn is not made of bone or ivory. It grows out from the skin, not from the skull, and is actually comprised of matted hair-like fibres called keratin. And like hair, it keeps growing – about 10 centimetres every year, in fact. Knowing this, conservation officials set up official programs to cut the horns off in the hope that they’d also be removing the main reason for killing the animals. “Safe de-horning was a solution to the poaching problem,” says Leon. “But the authorities found that if poachers tracked a rhino for several days and found it didn’t have a horn, they would kill it anyway, so that they wouldn’t mistakenly track it again.”
“Shit,” I shout, as we round another corner and a massive elephant the size of which I never new existed lumbers 10 feet away. It looks intimidatingly in our direction with its huge ears flapping and continues walking without missing a beat. Back in the early 1980s, Hluhluwe’s elephant population was very low; at the same time, Kruger Park had a lot of young orphaned ones. Sending Kruger’s surplus to Hluhluwe seemed a logical step, but it has had unintended consequences. In the late 1990s, conservationists discovered that young male elephants were killing both black and white rhinos in the park, about 40 in total.
Researchers attributed the unusual behaviour to musth, the state of increased aggression in male elephants which is linked to reproduction—sort of what happens to male dogs when female ones are in heat. Musth, caused by increased levels of sex hormones in their blood, can last in mature males for up to three to five months every year. But bull elephants normally enter musth gradually, only reaching full musth around the age of 30. But with no older bulls around to establish a hierarchy and show them how to behave, the orphaned males of Hluhluwe were experiencing full musth as early as 18. “So not only does the rhino face increasing pressure from poaching, now with some of them de-horned, they also faced aggressive elephants,” says Leon. “It [was] a difficult situation.”
We drive for another 10 minutes and finally see moving shapes in the distance that resemble what we are after. Our guide slows down and drives as quietly as one can with a Land Cruiser on a bumpy gravel dirt road to get us as close as safely possible to the rhinos. “They have great hearing, but terrible eyesight, we need to be quiet,” says Leon. “If we get too close, it might charge and that’s not good.” He stops and we sit in captivated silence. “It looks like a family,” says a member of our group. Two large older white rhinos and a younger rhino lazily munch on grass less than 10 metres away. Although they seem to be ignoring us, the constant swivel of their ears from front to back to side suggests otherwise. The younger rhino, a teenager, stays close to the other two.
The grassy plain behind them stretches until it reaches rolling hills. Time seems to drift, and after a while Leon steers away and we head toward the park’s main entrance gate. Tomorrow we head to Cape Town to climb Table Mountain, but if it was up to me I’d just stay here.