Lilongwe - I wouldn’t usually dip my hand into pungent, fresh dung but, somehow, tracking black rhino made it seem normal.
Mostly grassy with some beetles crawling around, it was weirdly exciting – conclusive evidence that the rhino we’d been tracking since 5.30am was close.
Minutes later, our trackers spotted Shamwari just 20 metres, ahead, shielding her 18-month-old calf in thicket so dense I couldn’t see her. But I could hear her, particularly when she gave her alarm call, a deep, angry snort.
“Get behind that tree,” Dorian Tilbury whispered with a sense of urgency, before asking: “How badly did you want a rhino photo?”
“Not that badly,” I replied, scanning the tree for footholds to climb in an emergency.
Another warning from Shamwari convinced us the photo was unnecessary and we retreated cautiously out of the thicket.
If David Attenborough’s epic new Africa BBC TV series is emblematic of our abiding fascination with the animals of this vast continent, then the conservation story behind the protection of species such as the black rhino deserves equal billing.
Without the efforts of wildlife experts and armies of committed rangers and volunteers in reserves, there would be far less for Attenborough to film, and far less for us to admire.
Tilbury and his team from African Parks, a South African non-profit organisation funded by a Dutch conservation foundation, had invited me to see how they monitor and protect rhino in Malawi’s Majete Wildlife Reserve.
“We were lucky,” Mr Moyo, our lead tracker, said. “If that had been Kumi, she’d have charged.”
Our safe retreat was down to the trackers’ incredible expertise. They know the rhinos by name, their individual spoor, by distinctive notches in their ears and, thankfully, by their personalities.
Following virtually indiscernible footprints in dry riverbeds and along grassy trails, we’d been tracking Shamwari specifically because she is, in rhino terms, a placid character.
Named after the South African reserve where she was born, Shamwari means “friend” in the Shona language.
Today, with her horn worth more than its weight in gold, she needs friends like African Parks to ensure her species survives.
Now that Majete’s 142km perimeter is fenced, it is one of the safest places in Africa for rhino, though rangers remain on high alert with daily patrols.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, protecting wildlife was way down Malawi’s list of priorities. Poaching was rife and, by 1992, not one elephant remained in Majete. Now it’s home to 260.
African Parks started managing the reserve in 2003 in collaboration with the government.
Tilbury explained: “We aim to take depleted protected areas, rehabilitate, restock and make them ecologically, socially and financially sustainable. We get a 25-year tenure and then hand them back.”
Majete is well on the way to ecological sustainability. African Parks has relocated 2 500 animals to the reserve at a cost of nearly $3 million (R26m). There are now about 5 000.
With community involvement crucial to conservation, African Parks employs up to 200 locals and has a social programme of educational, health and income-generating projects that encourages the 19 communities around the reserve (130 000 people) to benefit from wildlife rather than poach it.
With tourism the main revenue source, they’ve added 300km of good dirt roads within the 700km2 reserve to improve accessibility, along with a comfortable lodge called Thawale, a visitor and education centre, and a community-run campsite.
Perhaps the biggest vote of confidence in Majete is the development of a luxury lodge, Mkulumadzi, opened by Robin Pope Safaris in July, 2011.
On the banks of the Shire River, Mkulumadzi’s eight chalets are bright and contemporary with mesmerising river views regularly featuring elephants, hippos, crocodiles and monkeys.
Walks, boat trips and game drives for viewing Majete’s now varied wildlife are all possible. Just after the rainy season, tall grasses and leafy trees meant spotting animals wasn’t always easy, but those I saw looked gloriously fat and healthy.
Of the so-called big five – elephant, buffalo, rhino, leopard and lion – I watched buffaloes wallow in mud and elephants wade in the river. Rhinos, including calves bred here, remained elusive, as did four leopards introduced last year. Tilbury’s team knows they’re around, though, monitoring GPS signals from their collars.
In August, three lions were relocated from South Africa and have settled in well.
With the future looking so bleak elsewhere, for animals such as Shamwari and her calf, Majete, African Parks is a ray of hope.
Restocking Africa: Five success stories
South Africa – white rhinos in Phinda Private Game Reserve
Up to 80 percent of the world’s rhinos live in South Africa, placing the country at the forefront of rhino poaching.
More than 600 were killed for their horns in 2012, exceeding the 450 killed in 2011.
Volunteers help to monitor white and black rhino through African Conservation Experience (conservationafrica.net) in one of the country’s greatest conservation successes at Phinda Private Game Reserve (phinda.com), KwaZulu-Natal.
Its 23 000ha were once degraded and depleted of wildlife, but more than 1 000 animals have been reintroduced since 1990, including white rhinos that now total 100.
Phinda has six luxury lodges and masses of wildlife, including more than 400 bird species.
Uganda – Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Ngamba (ngambaisland.com), a forested island on Lake Victoria, provides sanctuary to 48 rescued chimpanzees.
Africa’s endangered chimps are struggling with a loss of forest habitat, the effects of armed conflicts, the bush-meat trade and capture for pets or circuses.
Numbers have diminished from more than a million a century ago to about 150 000, with a further 80 percent slide expected in 40 years without intervention.
The Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust helps these primates to recover and integrates them into this new community.
But they are unlikely to return to the wild: reintroduction is fraught with danger, from humans and other chimps. Visitors can care for them, playing and walking with them in the forest.
Namibia – desert elephants in Kunene region
In the 1980s, Namibia’s rare desert elephants were wiped out within their homeland in Kunene by poaching and hunting. Strong rains tempted a small herd to return in 1998 and other herds followed, but by then the local communities were unaccustomed to living with elephants and ensuing conflicts over water sources and crop-raiding threatened the elephants’ survival.
Today, with the involvement of Elephant Human Relations Aid (Ehra), the elephant population now exceeds 600. Communities are beginning to see their pachyderm neighbours as an asset in new tourism ventures.
Ehra takes volunteers (including families) to help secure water supplies and track and monitor the elephants’ activities in Namibia’s stunning desert landscapes (desertelephant.org).
Zimbabwe – lion conservation at Hwange National Park
It’s unthinkable that you could go on safari and never see a lion; yet their numbers are declining across Africa, from about 200 000 in the 1950s to about 25 000 today.
The main reasons for this are human-wildlife conflicts and trophy hunting. Unusually, Hwange National Park has had its lion numbers rise after a population analysis by the Hwange Lion Research Project, overseen by Oxford University, proved that hunting quotas were unsustainable.
Hwange’s latest project explores how communities can co-exist with lions by educating local people as “lion guardians”. Because each lion is identifiable by its whiskers, visitors can help by sharing their head-and-shoulders snaps of the kings of the jungle and location details with guides and researchers to aid their knowledge of behaviour patterns and survival. For more information, see wildcru.org.
Rwanda – mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park
The gradual increase in mountain gorilla populations is one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories.
Over the past 10 years, their numbers have increased by an estimated 12 percent, with about 800 now living in national parks in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
However, they remain highly vulnerable to human diseases, poaching, deforestation and – especially in the DRC – becoming innocent victims of political volatility.
Tourism and gorilla conservation are interwoven. The Rwanda Development Board raised permit costs 50 percent to $750 (R6 400) last June. Will our fascination with our closest cousins outweigh this?
Rwanda may be testing the market, but gorilla conservation could pay the price. For more information, see rwanda-tourism.com. – The Independent