Imire rhino guardians save baby
Jamie Joseph on a mission: Solving poverty saves wildlife.
Assignment 2: Imire Rhino Breeding Programme. Mashonaland, Zimbabwe.
“No!” I shouted as I dropped the camera and watched helplessly as a one ton black rhino charged Reilly. To my left his mother screamed his name.
It all seemed like fun and games at the start, at least to everyone except Judy Travers, the Matriarch of Imire Safari Ranch, celebrated for their Rhino & Wildlife Conservation Programme, and situated in the lush Mashonaland bush just two hours east of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. We were about to enter the far side of the reserve when Judy had a sense that something was not right with Tatenda, the eight year old black rhino she had been foster mother to from six weeks to two years, after his own mother was poached in 2007. Since 2009 Tatenda had been running wild on Travers land – land that is steeped in pioneering history, ever since the seventies when the late Norman Travers introduced animals two by two, like a page out of Noah’s Ark.
Photo: Judy Travers with Tatenda on de-horning day a few weeks ago
The day began at sunrise when myself and four others on the Imire Volunteer Programme joined Judy for a horse back safari. We passed buffalo in the distance, and Nzou, a 40 something year old female elephant who defies logic by living with the buffalo, and then ambled on past impala, warthog and wildebeest. Ten minutes later we approached a fence and came across Shanu, a ten year old black rhino, and her adorable daughter, a nine month old calf called Tafika. Tafika is the 15th rhino to be born at Imire as part of the rhino breeding programme which has been running for two decades and released a dozen rhinos back into National Parks throughout Zimbabwe and Botswana.
We now live in a mad and twisted world where a rhino is killed every nine hours just to feed the insatiable egos of rich folk in Far East lands that consider the rhino’s horn – nothing but keratin (the stuff in your fingernails) – to be a status symbol, and will shell out green bucks to the value of US$80 000 a kilo. Because of the poaching crisis, all of Imire’s rhinos have 24/7 security and they each have a guardian that shadows them all day long. We were greeted by Ganizani, a senior rhino guardian at Imire, and got chatting about Kamuchacha, a female black rhino that had bolted the day before, and when they managed to catch up with her they found her under the weight of Gomo, mating. Now here is where the story starts to unfold. Unlike Gomo, who fathered Tafika, Tatenda has now reached his prime but is yet to close the deal, and was feeling frisky and extremely frustrated when he came across Shanu and her baby. A male rhino will sometimes kill a calf in order to get it out of the picture and force the mother back into her mating cycle. With rhinos tinkering on the brink of extinction, this is a brutal part of nature that is most unwelcome at the worst of times.
“I don’t like that look in Tatenda’s eyes,” Judy commented as Tatenda arrived on the scene and walked up to Shanu and Tafika. “He seems restless. I don’t think we should go in.”
Baby Tafika and Mama Shanu
Tatenda and Kamuchacha on better days
And so we stayed on our side of the fence by the Castle Kopje gate and observed. It seemed harmless in the beginning. Tatenda greeted little Tafika as they touched lips and then he immediately began to chase Tafika. In the beginning Shanu didn’t react, which was unsurprising as her and Tatenda had nothing but good history.
“The mum seems fine with it all,” I said to Judy. “You don’t think they’re just playing?”
“If Tatenda chases Tafika into the water she will drown,” said a very concerned Judy. A few minutes later it was clear that the game was over before it had even begun, and Ganizani also suddenly realised he had a serious problem on his hands as Tatenda became more aggressive.
“Ganizani, climb a tree!” shouted Judy as she dialled Reilly, her son, who is also Imire’s Game Park Manager, born and bred. But Reilly didn’t pick up the first couple times because, unknown to us, he was dealing with fish poachers on the other side of the farm. And Ganizani didn’t climb a tree. Instead he continued to chase after Tatenda butting up to little Tafika, who was really quite amazing at bobbing and weaving through the bush and staying one step ahead. About five minutes later Ganizani managed to position himself between the hulk and the tot, and distract Tatenda for a few seconds just as mama Shanu jumped in and went head to head with Tatenda. This was Tafika’s chance to run away, but she refused to leave her mother’s side. Judy opened the gate just as Reilly zoomed in on his motorbike.
The grunting and panting became a lot more intense. Tatenda broke off and was back to chasing Tafika, who was not squealing with fear.
“Get off your horses!” alerted Judy as Reilly jumped off his motorbike and approached with his rifle. “If the horses get spooked by the gunshot just let them go.”
Bang!The first shot hit the air with a burst and a crack, but Tatenda didn’t even flinch. Three seconds later Reilly fired another shot into the air, but Tatenda continued to go after Tafika with Shanu on his tail. The circles were getting smaller and smaller and soon Reilly and Ganizani were caught up in a cloud of dust between three rhinos.
Again I heard Tafika’s agonising scream of desperation and twenty seconds later Reilly fired a third shot into the air. Finally Tatenda turned away from Tafika and turned on Reilly. As he began to charge Reilly he ran from this prehistoric beast with magnificent pace, but then tripped and threw his gun just as Tatenda descended on him. The infuriated rhino hoofed him in the back and then Reilly swung around and double kicked Tatenda on the nose with both his feet.
“Reilly!” screamed Judy, and within seconds an exhausted Ganizani was between the rhino she had fostered, and the son she had given birth to. A battered Reilly jumped back up, adrenalin pumping through his veins, and for whatever reason, Tatenda decided to back down at this moment. Together Reilly and Ganizani herded Tatenda towards the gate.
Tatenda passed through the gate just as a support vehicle arrived, leaving behind two out of breath humans and a very relieved rhino mother and calf. The battle went on for about 12 minutes, and it was 12 minutes I will never forget.
It takes incredible courage to stand between a determined rhino and his target, to use your own body as a punching bag in order to save the life of a baby rhino. I asked Reilly why he threw his gun, and he said he didn’t want to risk shooting Tatenda under the influence of extreme adrenaline, and so he removed the risk. Where do you draw the line? When do you put your own life above the life of the animals you’re trying to protect? I’ve been pondering that question.
And as the sun starts to set over this beautiful land, with all its precious animals, I sit at the water’s edge typing these words, and all is well again. And I am reminded that there are no lines, only the path you choose. This is conservation. This is the wild. When you choose this life you either live to fight another day, or you die trying.
– Drone footage of Shanu and her baby Tafika taken the day after the battle with Tatenda.
– Imire’s elephant hero that thinks she’s a buffalo.
– Experiencing Imire’s wildlife on horseback.
– Saving rhinos through community conservation. Now and the Future.
– Incredible campfire stories from the seventies to present day.
The wildlife guardians of Imire
Video screenshots: Tatenda charges Reilly. Ganizani rushes to his side. / 25 August 2015.
Reilly, Shanu and Tafika