Meet the rhino whisperer

Sekora Gunikhwe

Sekora Gunikhwe

Meet Sekora Gunikhwe, rhino whisperer. Sekora’s rather extraordinary job is to get to know six very special white rhino, to understand their individual behavioural quirks, and to familiarise the animals with his presence. To do this he chats quietly to them. It’s doubtful they can understand what he’s saying, for if these rhinos could talk they’d speak Zulu, whereas Sekora speaks Setswana. But this is a learning exercise for both man and beast.

Botswanan game scout Sekora is part of a unique project, the first private donation of rhinos from a private game reserve to another country. The reserve in question is &Beyond’s Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Kwazulu Natal, the rhino’s final destination the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

We meet Sekora at the tightly guarded boma (enclosure) at a secret location in Kwazulu Natal where the rhinos are being held since they were captured in January. They are being fed up on lucerne and pellets, to ensure they are in tiptop condition when they face the arduous 30 hour road trip to their new home.

It’s Sekora’s first time working with rhinos and he admits he was a little afraid of the animals at first, but now he thinks they are ‘awesome creatures’. Back home in the Delta he’ll be responsible for caring for the rhinos in the pre-release boma where they will be held for a couple of days. But his involvement won’t stop there: he’s being trained to track the animals using radio telemetry and will be part of a team monitoring their movements post-release.

Simon  Naylor

Simon Naylor

At the boma we also meet Phinda reserve manager Simon Naylor, who explains that the rhinos will be fitted with VHF horn implants to allow radio-tracking. ‘We’ll also put radio collars on their back legs, so we can monitor their movements by satellite. These will be fitted with drop-off mechanisms, set for 12 months, so we’ll have peace of mind that there will be no issues with collars after the batteries stop working.’

Simon is confident the rhinos will handle translocation well, not least because the animals were all captured from the same part of Phinda, and know one another. It was a deliberate selection policy, though not without its hiccups, as he explains.

Sekora and Simon examining lucerne

Sekora and Simon examining lucerne

‘The first animal we caught was a mature cow. Here at Phinda she performs an auntie role, she’s always got youngsters with her and we thought she would be a good candidate. But when we introduced the other five rhinos, she just didn’t like it, didn’t want anything to do with them, and during the night she broke out of the boma. So we caught another female, also from the same area, and put her in, and the minute she woke up the others came and welcomed her and within seconds she was mixing and feeding with them,’ he says.

‘There are three females and three bulls, all aged between four and seven years. At this age they are very social. The males already know their pecking order so they don’t have to waste energy fighting it out in the boma. It will help after the journey that they are all in one boma together. The fact that they all know one another is going to help relax them, and hopefully keep them all in that area when they are released.’

White rhino on Phinda

White rhino on Phinda

Moving the rhinos is a logistical and security challenge. Two trucks will be used for the 30 hour non-stop journey, but there will also be tractors and 4×4 cranes for the seven hour stretch between Maun and the release site, which includes deep sand and two river crossings. The Botswana Defence Force will provide an escort from the border. ‘Security and the risk of hi-jacking is in all our minds,’ explains Simon. ‘That’s why we’re keeping the boma location and the transport date secret. We’re taking plenty of precautions.’

Phinda has thriving populations of both white and black rhino, and Simon believes this translocation may not be the last: ‘Six rhinos is a drop in the ocean, but it’s a start. There are maybe 50 or 60 rhino in the Delta at the moment, so six adds another ten per cent. If this goes well, there could be more in the future.’

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One Comment on “Meet the rhino whisperer”

  1. panos48 February 27, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

    Reblogged this on southweb2.

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