Botswana’s rhino population has seen a surge in growth over the past few years thanks to the philanthropic efforts of several companies and NGOs. Efforts like Rhinos Without Borders, a collaboration between Great Plains Conservation and andBeyond has pledged to move 100 rhinos from poaching hotspots in South Africa to Botswana, and they are very nearly at their goal.
The choice of Botswana as the new home for these animals is due to the reputation that the country has for the safekeeping of its wildlife and the hard stance that it takes against poaching. This is a remarkable turnaround as poaching had decimated rhino populations here in the 1980s and there were only 19 white rhinos left in the early 1990s. Black rhinos were locally extinct.
Rhinos are part of the Botswana landscape and have been missing from it for far too long. But they are keystone species that shape their environment and the savannah will welcome them back. The people of Botswana should be inordinately proud that their country is now seen as a safe solution in the poaching war that is threatening the rhino populations in surrounding countries.
But it’s one thing to know that these animals are there and an entirely different thing to see them, back where they used to roam – particularly when you yourself have lived in this wild environment but have never seen a rhino.
Great Plains Foundation and the Okavango Community Trust invited the chiefs of 6 remote villages in northern Botswana to come and see some of the rhinos that have been reintroduced to Botswana. Dereck Joubert, CEO and Founder of Great Plains Conservation, met the chiefs on arrival and explained that while it was different companies that raised the money and brought the rhinos to Botswana, on their release they belonged to no organization – instead they now belong to the people of Botswana and are entrusted to their care.
With the translating help of Mr Kareopa, the Village District Council Chairman, Chief Conservation Officer & Veterinarian, Markus Hofmeyr and Sven Bourquin, Monitoring Co-ordinator for Rhinos Without Borders, presented the urgent need for rhino conservation and the value that these animals have to the environment and the economy.
With tourism concessions being major employers in these areas, it is clear that the addition of these animals to complete the ‘Big 5’ will have a significant positive economic boost while an increase in poaching would quickly have the opposite effect.
The Chiefs were then driven out to one of the release sites with Head Ranger Poster, who tracked the rhinos using the state-of-the-art technology, used to keep these rhinos safe and monitored at all times. They found three rhinos, tucked under a tree in the shade, calm and looking in perfect condition.
Despite knowing this area well and having lived here their entire lives, none of these men had ever seen a rhino before. Mr Divire Ndando of Gudigwa Village was amazed at how calm the rhinos were having only heard tales of their ferocity and dangerous nature while Mr Boitshwarelo Mosenyegi from Eretsha was thrilled to finally see these animals for the first time in his 50 years.
Each of the Chiefs expressed their gratitude at having been given the opportunity to see these rhinos and were going to take the message of conservation back to their villages and share the responsibility of the custodianship of these rhinos with the people who live so close to them. Additionally they are happy that Great Plains Conservation is working closely with the people in these villages and sharing the benefits that come from wildlife tourism through employment, education initiatives and support in local enterprises.
The primary school children who were selected to join the Mara Plains guides on game drive were done so by merit from last year’s exam results. They, we were told by their headmasters, would be asked to write a story about the animals they saw so that the experience could be shared with the school children who were not so lucky. No doubt they will all be inspired in some small way to try extra hard in this year’s exams so that the next time the Mara Plains game viewers pull up outside their school, they will be the lucky ones selected to spend the day in the company of leopards, lions and elephants! When asked what jobs they wanted when they were older many of them simply pointed to our guides who had opened their eyes to the beauty of their natural heritage. Perhaps we might have inspired the future generation of Great Plains guides.
At the very least each person will have walked away with a greater understanding of the wildlife they share the Maasai Mara with and perhaps a greater appreciation of its intrinsic value and global importance. With more trips on the horizon and perhaps the odd classroom talk given by our guides, hopefully we can play a small role in greater integrating the local communities with the animals and the habitats they rely on.