“Oh, look!” my friend exclaims as she kills the car engine. I turn my head slowly to my left and gasp. Less than three meters from the car are four huge white rhinos, their imposing horns like swords ready to thrust at any potential enemy. Yet these gigantic creatures simply stare at us for a full two minutes before apparently deciding we are not a threat and slowly moving forward to get a drink from a puddle of water that has formed on the road after the previous night’s rain.
We are elated by the sight and talk in whispers. After a while, three of them start walking right in front of the car, across the road. We cannot move nor can we take our eyes off them. Suddenly the fourth rhino, which had been grazing behind a tall tree, comes out of hiding. We catch our breath as it lets out a loud grunt, clearly challenging us.
Without warning, the massive animal, weighting well over 1500 kg, charges at us. All I see is its horn, which could easily slice through the door, and it is coming right at me! Just millimeters from the car the rhino stops. Still groaning angrily it moves towards the front of the car, the edge of its sturdy blade, made up of tightly massed filaments similar to hair, barely missing the car tire.
The mock charge is over and the rhino grumpily saunters off and joins its companions. They remain just three metres form the car, chomping grass as if nothing happened. Our hearts trumpeting in our chests, we look at each other in awe. We cannot stop taking about what has taken place on the way back to Khama Rhino Sanctuary camp.
This encounter was a powerful reminder that the rhinos are the kings of this particular sanctuary, a land dedicated to the preservation of this species. The long-term goal of the sanctuary is to let the rhinos safely breed within its borders and re-introduce them into their natural wild habitats.
More than 38 white rhinos and three black rhinos have found refuge at Khama Rhino Sanctuary which was officially established in 1993, when the Ngwato Land Board allocated the land around Serwe Pan to the sanctuary in the trust of a group of local people. “The mission started when we realised rhinos were getting finished in the wild. We set up the trust with the Department of Wildlife, and the main purpose was to save those animals”, Moremi Tjibae, the park manager, explains. “The president of the country is the patron of our trust.”
Covering approximately 4 300 hectares of Kalahari sandvelt, the sanctuary is a large grass-covered depression with several natural waterholes. The Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, with the help of Natal Parks Board, first started the sanctuary by trans-locating four rhinos from northern Botswana in 1993. These rhinos were placed in a large boma before being released into the park. The operation was successful and since then, all the rhinos that have been relocated to the sanctuary have settled and have been breeding. In fact, they have been doing so well at Khama Rhino Sanctuary that the government recently allocated them another 4 300 hectares of land.
The government is also coming up with some strategies, the manager, who has been working at Khama Rhino for 11 years and worked as a Department of Wildlife and National Park officer before, adds. “In ten years time, maybe there will be around 600 rhinos here. The population is growing. This is the second largest place in Botswana where you find such a concentration of rhinos, we find them in the Moremi Game Reserve but many are sill being poached. You see, rhinos are very important. If they become extinct in Botswana, the country has failed to protect them. They just have to be protected”, he adds.
Thanks to their proximity to a Botswana Defence Force base, Khama Rhino Sanctuary has never had a problem with poaching, which remains an issue in most parts of the country. “This is a community-based initiative, initiated by the people themselves and they all surround the sanctuary so they take care of it. The fence also prevents people from coming in and also we patrol it all the time. And then the army is there”, he says.
According to the Botswana law, poachers can be fined up to 100 000 Pula and get 30 years imprisonment if they are caught hunting or poaching a rhino. “That’s the only animal that you get a really big sentence if you are caught hunting”, Tjibae enthuses.
Tourists from all over the world come to see these rhinos. The open pans in the north of the park is prime habitat for the white rhinos while black rhinos can be found in the more bushy areas further south. The park is also home to hundreds of wildebeest, zebra, warthog, giraffe, eland, hartebeest and other antelope, as well as over 230 species of birds. While big cats such as leopards and cheetahs also make their home at Khama. The sanctuary’s roads are well maintained to make them suitable for self-drive game viewing.
As I leave Khama Rhino Sanctuary, I feel very privileged to have encountered this majestic and almost prehistoric creature in a place where they can roam freely, even though more still needs to be done to protect these animals from human’s greedy and inconsiderate activities.