Rhino Tracking 101 in Nakitoma, Uganda

by John Dewald

A traveler in Uganda learns the subtle art of rhino tracking, and finds himself getting a bit too close for comfort…

I’m in Uganda tracking rhinos. It’s late in the afternoon, and the birds are coming back to life as the sun sinks lower and lower. Big white clouds float overhead. The savannah glows gold in the afternoon light. The occasional tree sprouts up from the horizon of high dry grass, the leaves a rich green. It looks like what I’d thought Africa would look like when I was a kid.

I’m a few hours’ drive north in the Nakitoma region of Uganda in a 17,000+ acre rhino sanctuary. The land is fenced-in but otherwise relatively wild—no lions but yes leopards, warthogs, waterbucks, mongooses, blue-balled monkeys, Golden-Crested cranes, and plenty of other animals that include, of course, rhinos.

Today, I and five other volunteers are “assisting” Sanold, a park ranger, in monitoring Kori, one of the female rhinos. Kori just gave birth to a baby girl two days ago and has spent the entire day in the shade of a solitary tree guarding her calf. She’s incredibly protective of her baby, so we can’t get close.

We’re under a different tree maybe fifty meters away, and Kori is out of sight. Sanold checks on her once an hour, but otherwise we’re just killing time. Socks and shoes off, I’m using my backpack for a pillow as I work on a story about catching boa constrictors in Honduras. It’s a fun story to remember, but I’m not getting anywhere. I keep losing my train of thought, half nodding off.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve broken down the process of rhino tracking—at least the kind that we are doing—into three steps. Step One: find the rhino. There are a little over thirty rhinos in the sanctuary, all southern white rhinos. Each day you track a different one. Sometimes the ranger already knows where it is, and after a quick ride in the back of the truck followed by a little walk through the bush, you find it.

Sometimes, the ranger only has a rough idea where the rhino could be. When that happens, you wander around the bush for hours, exploring the jungle, wading through marshes, walking through cactus forests, and hiking through the shoulder-high grass of the savannah. You go waterhole to waterhole looking for rhino footprints. You inspect blades of grass to see if any are bent or dirty. You listen for certain bird calls that could indicate that something big is around. You follow the ranger as he does all of the other things that he knows how to do. As you search, you hope you don’t come around a clump of trees and find yourself face-to-face with a rhino. You also try to remember to keep looking back, so another rhino doesn’t sneak up behind you.

Each ranger dresses in camo, carries an old Russian AK-47, and has orders to shoot to kill if he comes across any poacher who doesn’t immediately surrender. The rangers are knowledgeable, kind, and know how to make bird calls that I haven’t gotten close to being able to recreate. They work twenty-four-hour shifts, spending the night out in the bush.

Once you find the rhino you’re looking for, it’s time for Step Two: get as close to the rhino as you can without getting too close. There’s a little bit more of a gray area here, but as a general rule, you can get a lot closer to the rhinos than I’d expected.

Some rhinos are more aggressive. A mother with a newborn—like Kori—can be very territorial, attacking anything that gets too close to her baby. Some of the alphas can also be more dangerous. The biggest rhino in the sanctuary is Augusto. Some of the rangers claim that he’s the biggest rhino in the world—white rhinos are bigger than black rhinos, black rhinos are more aggressive than white rhinos—but the most dangerous rhino in the sanctuary is Toleo.

Toleo is a mean motherfucker. One of the older alphas, Toleo likes to go around covered in dried reddish mud that kind of looks like war paint. He’s killed two of the other rhinos. One was another alpha in a battle for territory. The other one was an adolescent—one of his sons—in a fight over a female. He’s charged rangers, almost getting them, too. They managed to escape by hiding in trees, but it was a close call. Step 2.5 is to stay away from Toleo.

Step 3 is to monitor the rhino. This usually means sitting back and hoping something cool happens. Rhinos are incredible, but after a couple days of watching them eat grass, lounge around, and occasionally wallow in a mud puddle, the excitement starts to wear off—it’s amazing what we normalize. Step 3 often involves wanting to see more action. A fight—nothing serious, just a little friendly horseplay between two adolescents, nobody wants anyone to get hurt—and rhino sex are usually at the top of the list.

Yesterday, we’d almost gotten lucky. Moja, the female we’d been tracking, was starting to get into heat. She lives in Augusto’s territory, and he’d come along to say hi. He made a couple of passes at her, but Moja had been with a group of around ten other rhinos, and the big guy hadn’t been able to close.

The other part of Step 3 is the following: when the rhino you’re monitoring moves, move with it. It sounds like common sense, but yesterday the other group of volunteers forgot this part and found themselves nearly surrounded by rhinos (including Toleo), and two days ago, we were slow to move, lost the rhino we were monitoring and had to start the whole process over again. You feel kind of stupid when you lose something as big as a rhino. But today, that hadn’t been an issue. Step 3 had been boring. Once we’d found Kori, we’d retreated to a safe distance and spent the day under a tree. It might as well have been a picnic.

Giving up on trying to write, I put my pen and notebook in my backpack. I can write later. I close my eyes and let the birds sing me to sleep.

“Don’t move.”

That’s Sanold’s voice. Shit. I open my eyes.

“No fast movements,” says Sanold. He’s on his feet, slowly backing away behind the clump of trees. His eyes are wide. The rest of the group is behind him.

“No fast movements,” he says again, his eyes leaving mine for something behind me.

That’s when I hear it, the guttural sounds of a rhino eating. It sounds close…way too close.

I slowly push myself up onto my hip, twisting my head to look. It’s Kori. She’s a few body lengths away. Head down, she’s eating the short green grass growing under the clump of trees. If I wanted to, I could jump up, run over, and touch her in two seconds, maybe three. She’s close enough to see the wrinkles in her skin, the wetness of her nostrils, and the three hooves of each foot.

She stops eating. Her head comes up just a few inches off the ground. Her ears quiver as they listen. My heart thumps in my chest. I stop breathing.

Her eyes are dark and hooded. They stare in my direction. I freeze. Her eyes look past me without seeming to see anything. Behind Kori, the high grass of the savannah bends toward us in the breeze. I’m downwind. Rhinos have bad eyesight. If I don’t move or make any noise, I might be ok.

Not moving, my eyes are locked on Kori. She’s not moving either. The birds chirp. The leaves and grass blow in the wind. We both stay still. She’s breathing. I’m not.

The seconds slide by, almost tangible. They feel like far longer. Then Kori lets out a grunt and exhales, bringing her head back down. Her horns are pointed toward me. They don’t look sharp, but they don’t need to be. She’s huge.

Kori takes a step forward. My muscles contract as I prepare to run. Then, she opens her mouth and starts eating grass, her lips and teeth smacking and mashing as she pulls the blades out of the ground. I exhale slowly through my nose. Never has a sound been more welcome. She takes another step toward me and then starts to peel off to the left. A few seconds later, I’m looking at her flank, tail, and incredibly wrinkled ass.

I sit up, careful not to make any noise. Slowly slipping my backpack over my shoulder, I pick up my shoes and push myself to my feet. Stealing one last look back at Kori, I hurry around the clump of trees toward the others, praying she doesn’t turn around. I can’t help it—I’m smiling.

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