Thomas Mukasa’s uniform and gum boots blend with nature. With his walkie talkie tucked to the belt, if it were not for his company’s logo embroidery, one might mistake him for an army man.
Mukasa, a ranger at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, speaks eloquently as he takes tourists through safety precautions, a key orientation requirement for anyone adventuring into the wildness of the sanctuary.
“Turn off the camera flash and clicking sounds, and if a rhino charges at you, hide in the thickets or behind trees. If possible climb a tree,” he says.
In the 70s, black and white rhinos existed in Uganda’s national parks. The rhino stood proud in the wild among the Big 5 which include the Leopard, Lion, Elephant and African buffalo.
The five large African mammals were known to be dangerous and it was considered a deadly task by trophy hunters to capture them.
Unfortunately, during the political insurgency in the 1970’s and 80’s, the numbers dwindled due to rampant poaching which led to their near extinction.
The last rhino in the wild was spotted in 1983. During the peace recovery in 1997, Rhino Uganda, a non-governement organisation was formed to spearhead the Rhino re-introduction in Uganda.
In 2000, two rhinos; Kabira and Sherino were brought from Solio Ranch in Kenya to Uganda Wildlife Education Centre which was called the Zoo then.
“Rhino Fund sought for land and in 2004 it secured Ziwa,” Mukasa says, adding that in the same year, the conservation area was secured with an electric perimeter fence.
The sanctuary in Nakasongola District is 180 kilometres north of Kampala along the Kampala Gulu highway.
The life-size sculptures of the two white rhinos at the turn were a signal that we are fast approaching the right destination. At the gate, a warden stops us to register and a minute later, she throws the gates open. We drive through the savannah grassland to the headquarters.
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary received its first Rhinos in 2005. They were two males and two females from Kenya.
A year later, Orlando Zoo at the Disney Animal Kingdom, in Florida gave the sanctuary two more rhinos and in June 2009, the first calf was born of a Kenyan father and American mother. It was named Obama in respect to the former president of the US.
Mukasa points out that 13 rhinos have been born since 2009 with the youngest called Noelle, born a day after Christmas on 26 December, 2016.
Up close with rhinos
He revealed that the total number of 20 rhinos fell to 19 after one adult male killed a four year old over a territory dispute.
Big James, our driver from Gorilla Tours that took a team of us on the familiarisation trip of the western Uganda tourism circuit, drives enthusiastically to the trekking commencement point.
After 10 minutes of walking through the savannah grassland, we come across Malaika, the first female rhino born at the sanctuary. She is grazing with her baby Noelle.
“These animals eat day and night. You are lucky to find them grazing at this time because the temperatures are too high,” he says.
Within 20 minutes, our ranger locates the 17-year-old Nandi with her one-and-half-year son Sonic.
At the animal sanctuary, the rhino trekking experience enables visitors to watch the rhinos at close and safe distances. The cost per person is $45 for non-residents and Shs30,000 for Ugandan. There are a variety of activities to enjoy such as nature walk, fishing, night walks, volunteer programmes, bird watching and a shoebill canoe ride.
At Ziiwa sanctuary, poaching of animals for game meat poses a threat to wildlife on the 70-acre piece of land.
“We have persons who kill waterbucks, bushbabies, reedbucks and Oribi,” explains Mukasa, noting that he is however, more concerned about the threats to the rhinos.
Rhinos are poached for their horn which is believed to be a remedy for different ailments and a boaster of male prowess in Asia. According to a report by US-based strategy and policy advisory firm Dalberg, a kilogramme of rhino horn costs $ 60,000 on the black market.
This makes the horn made of keratin more lucrative than gold and platinum.
The sanctuary has White rhinos which are friendlier unlike the black rhinos which are very aggressive. Once black rhinos are brought into the country, the ranger guide assured us that the species will be taken direct to the National Park.
A grown up male weighs three tonnes (3000kgs) whereas a female weighs 2.8 tonnes (2,800kgs). At birth, a rhino weighs between 45 and 50kgs. A rhino is the second largest mammal after the Elephant that stands at about seven tonnes (7,000kgs). It has a lifespan of 45 years. Female rhinos produce between 10 and 12 babies and start producing at four years. On the other hand, males become sexually active at 10 years. They delay because they need time to prioritise on how to man their territories. Rhinos move in a group ( crash) of twos or threes; one mother and one calf. When a mother gives birth, the old calf is expected to leave.