Tracking mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo has been talked about world over, but few know about following black rhinos in Samburu’s Sera Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya.
At the community-owned Sera Conservancy, we started the unique and thrilling journey of tracking rhinos at 6am because the animals generally sleep during the day to escape the scorching heat.
For the first time in 30 years, the rhinos are back roaming in the conservancy. They are 13 of them after the translocation, 10 adults with three calves and at least two more suspected pregnancies.
We teamed up with Joseph, a guide from Saruni Rhino where were staying, as well as three elite anti-poaching rangers. For this adventure, traditional and modern techniques help spot the animals. Visitors to Sera Conservancy are unlikely to miss the rhinos and if one is lucky, you may see six.
One ranger held a GPS transmitter, which he kept hoisting above his head as we listened anxiously for a signal sent from the microchip implanted in the horn of the black rhino we were tracking.
Joseph shook a small cloth dispersing ash into the air, a method the Samburu traditionally used in the bush to tell the wind direction to keep one’s natural scent away from the rhino’s strong olfactory sense.
We walked in a single file and as the rangers’ tough black leather boots effortlessly trampled the thorns as they teared through the prickly commiphora bushes with ease, I looked down at my sneakers. I had worn the wrong shoes. I could feel the thorns tearing through my shoes.
Suddenly, Joseph froze and his right hand shot into the air, gesturing at us to stop. He seemed to be peering at something in the thicket further ahead. He gestured at me to move forward as silently as possible. Slowly, I inched closer and about 60 metres away following Joseph’s gaze and pointed finger, I spotted a mother rhino and calf browsing away among the shrubs.
While their rough grey skins camouflages seamlessly into the wilderness, up close, these creatures are magnificent! I was under strict instructions not to make noise. I felt a cough forming at the back of my throat, but I could not even rasp. The mother rhino was almost as tall as I was with even higher horns, and it easily weighed about 1,000 kilogrammes.
Earlier, I had asked if with its weight, it could actually catch up to me in a race, to which one of the rangers solemnly informed me that it can charge at up to 55km/h. I dared not cough.
We had been tracking these rhinos for about an hour, running through bushes and clamouring up boulders as we tried not to scare them away.
Each time we only spotted them in the distance, but this was as close as it got. It was only mid-morning but the sun was unforgiving. I wiped sweat off my face with the back of my palm, and thankfully, these animals do not have good sight.
We stood transfixed for minutes, watching them go about their munching. Shortly after, the spell was broken: we took pictures in quick succession, a ranger shifted his weight onto the other foot and I moved forward crackling several brittle twigs, to which the two wild animals wandered off in the opposite direction.
Still reeling from having spotted these animals up close, we drove on for a bush breakfast set up by Saruni hotel, after which we stopped to check out Sera’s wildlife sanctuary, which takes care of orphaned or abandoned calves.
It turns out that we were too early for their feeding time. Joseph instead led us on another brief walk to see a calf called Loijipu that love humans and mingles with them freely. I was more afraid of it than it was of me.
Under supervision, we touched its hard rough skin as the rangers told us tales of their escapades in the wild.