The thrill of tracking rhinos on foot at a sanctuary

Saturday July 24 2021
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A group of rhinos feed at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. PHOTOS/ EDGAR R. BATTE

By Edgar R. Batte

As the sun shone brightly, they took turns to wallow in a small pond of water in order to cool off the heat. It was a moment of joy for the wild southern white rhinoceros.

The sight of them partially immersing their bodies in the murky waters elicited their playful side as those waiting for their turn, used their horns to prompt those who seemed to enjoy the moment longer than others, to get out.

They would use their horns to gently nudge them to give way. And the ‘swimmers’ would oblige albeit grindingly. Rhinos do not have sweat glands so this allows them to cool off. 

The pond waters are muddy. When the mud dries, it suffocates and kills ticks and insects that bite them. After the wallow session, some stood in the road allowing us full view of their mass. We were only too happy to take shots at a distance that was comfortable enough for safety but also to quench our yearning to be up-close with these fierce jungle gems.

How rhinos are named

The six comprised of madam (the first born of Laloyo, one of the female rhinos) Sonic (a combination of names of the sponsor’s three sons), Zawadi (Swahili word for gift) Apace (named after the American friend), Guzo (pillar of the house) and Kageri (a name of a friend). 

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The rhinos adopt names from their sponsors and friends from all over the world who have visited and associated with Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Nakasongola on Uganda’s northern tourism and travel circuit. 

We were out at the sanctuary for a Saturday early evening excursion to track the huge animals, on foot. Our guide, Raymond Opio started by sharing some facts. 

An adult male rhino can weigh up to 3.6 tons, while the female can weigh between 2.5 to 2.7 tons. “Rhinos are one of the biggest herbivores. 

From our efforts of collecting data for more than 10 years, we have found out that these animals are special. 
They do not compete with other animals. It is a myth that rhinos are dangerous animals. Their group is a crash but not in a destructive way. They are peaceful and live as a family,” Opio explains. He adds that they have not seen rhinos attack other animals within the sanctuary. He is quick to caution us that the big guys are irked by sudden sounds, light and getting close to them which might prompt their self-defence.  

They are a target from poachers who kill them in order to secure their horns. “Nothing is precious about the horn of the rhino. 

They are all myths. In some countries, particularly in Asia; China and Yemen, it is believed that the horn powder can cure cancer. The myth has been disproved by scientists. 

Some people believe it cures hangover. The horn is similar to human nails and hair,” Opio argues. 

About the sanctuary 
The sanctuary is the only place where you will find rhinos in the wild. It was started after all rhinos were poached in the 1980s, following civil unrest in the 1970s.

“Poachers killed many wild animals and rhinos were extinct by 1983. In 1997, when there was a semblance of peace in the country, wildlife fanatics collected donations and got two rhinos from Kenya in 2001 and took them to Entebbe Zoo. 

Ziwa was a cattle ranch. In 2005, four rhinos were brought here. A year later, Disney Animal Kingdom in America brought two more rhinos,” Opio further explains.  In 2009, a Kenyan and American rhino gave birth to a calf which was named Obama. More were born. 

The main predator to rhinos, is the leopard and no sighting has been made within the wild cat thus far. 
They are ungulates. Their closest relatives are the horses. The young one is called a calf. It weighs about 15 kilogrammes at birth. 

Its mother carries a pregnancy for 16 months. The rhinos can live up to 45 years in the wild and an additional five years, on average in captivity or settings such as the zoo. 

Our first sighting was of eight-year old Laloyo, which means victory in Luo, one of the local languages in Northern Uganda. She was in the company of her little one called Rhoda. They were grazing and watching the duo effortlessly comb through grasslands and thickets was such an awesome sighting. Little Rhoda, weighing about 50 kilogrammes, was in a playful mood. 

The three-month-old would graze and then take time away from the mother to scan the grasslands, perhaps after hearing our cameras clicking. This called for moments of silence, lest it got the attention of its mother. 
You can admire their beauty yet your heart skips at the thought of the danger rhinos can cause when they charge at you.

The narrow escape 
 I had a mini fit of that when Rhoda charged at us but was quickly scared off by our guide, Opio. 
It ran back to its mother who was too preoccupied feeding on fairly overgrown grass to fill her belly. 
Taking pictures was initially challenging thanks to the grasses but as the animals wandered further into different zones, they got into open areas. 

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Tour guide Raymond Opio (Right) has worked in the wild and interacted with tourists by sharing knowledge about animals.

According to Opio, rhinos are big-time herbivores with the ability to averagely feed on 100 kilogrammes of grass every day.
“It depends on what is available. They can feed on short grass that is about 20 centimetres high. They can feed for 14 hours, mostly in the night. They are largely lazy during the day. They would prefer to sleep when it is hot. Rhinos are active when it is cooler,” our guide further explains.  

The sanctuary is home to 32 crash (a group of rhinos) living on a sanctuary that is 70 square kilometres (16, 000 hectares) large. 

Opio’s love for the wild animals got me curious about his motivation to learn and share so much information about the sanctuary habitats. 

His love for  wildlife 
He says after high school at Nebbi Progressive, his dream was to work in a place with wild animals. He made his first application to Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the custodian body under which the country’s 10 national parks are managed. 

When UWA advertised jobs for rangers to work at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in March 2008, he was happy to apply. “The good thing is they did not consider how educated one was but the willingness to work. 
When I was given the job, I found people here who didn’t even know how to write their name but did the work perfectly well, after training,” he recounts. 

Opio grew up in Kyatiri, Masindi near Murchison Falls National Park (Northern Uganda), but when trees were cut and animals poached, he made a commitment to work and protect wildlife when he got a chance. 

For 12 years, he has interacted with nature in the wild and been able to interact with tourists by sharing knowledge about animals as well as the need to conserve nature. 

The rhinos Opio passionately talks about share acreage with leopards, African golden cats, the Genet cat, bushbucks, oribis, waterbucks, kobs, reedbucks, duikers, sitatungas, antelopes and more. 

Rhino-trekking and other activities
While at Ziwa, you will find rhinos trekking on foot during the day. Other activities include nature walks, birding and night walk in search of nocturnal animals such as pangolins, leopards as well as birds. 

The sanctuary is home to some 350 bird species. If you are not a birder but love melody, the birds’ chirping at the early morning hour will give you a musical start for the day. 

The celebrity bird there is the Shoebill Stork, which you can track in a canoe for about two hours. The activity is run by the neighbouring community, who cash in on transporting tourists. 

Ugandans part with Shs30,000 (about $8), resident foreigners $40 and foreigners pay $50. While you do so, be sure to open your eyes for a chance to see Uganda’s national bird- the grey-crowned crane, pallin harrier, the red-headed Malimbe, Nubian Woodpecker, Francolin and booted eagle.

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The signpost on the road that branches off from the highway, leading to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Nakasongola on the Kampala-Gulu highway. PHOTO/EDGAR R BATTE

About the facility 
The sanctuary has a luxury, midrange and budget lodge. Our home during the excursion in the wild was Amuka Safari Lodge, tucked away within the remote corner of the sanctuary, with 10 unfenced rooms named after rhinos.

It has four family chalets with beds and rooms to accommodate the little ones as well. Here, we enjoyed some relaxing haven, away from motorised interruptions and fumes. It has a swimming pool too. The other accommodation options within the sanctuary are Ziwa Rhino Lodge which provides camping for backpackers, a guest house and restaurant.

There are hotel and lodge options outside the sanctuary too. It is located seven kilometres off the main road and is about 176 kilometres from Kampala. It will take you approximately two and a half hours of driving on the road. 

Key
For 12 years, Raymond Opio has interacted with nature in the wild and tourists by sharing knowledge about animals. The rhinos Opio passionately talks about share acreage with leopards, African golden cats, the Genet cat, bushbucks, oribis, waterbucks, kobs, reedbucks, duikers, sitatungas, antelopes and more. At Ziwa, you can get rhinos trekking on foot during the day. Other activities include nature walks and birding. 

Facts 

An adult male rhino weighs up to 3.6 tonnes, while the female can weigh between 2.5 to 2.7 tonnes.

Rhinos are one of the biggest herbivores. Rhinos do not compete with other animals. Their group is called a crash but not in a destructive way. They are peaceful and live as a family.

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