by Matthew Sterne on January 5, 2017
6 min read

Zama stops in his steps, looks up into the trees and takes a deep breath. After a moment of contemplation, he bends down slowly, picks up brown sand the colour of a kudu’s hide and with an outstretched hand, carefully lets the sand fall to the earth. The wind is not in our favour. The sand blows away from us slightly towards the rhinos as if magically pointing us in their direction.

Zama is an expert rhino tracker and monitor in the Somkhanda Game Reserve in Zululand, South Africa. An employee of Wildlife ACT, Zama sets out to find Somkhanda’s rhinos every day to ensure they’re fit and healthy. And that they haven’t fallen prey to poachers overnight.

Under a clouded sky, we zig-zag through the acacia trees in the crisp morning air and make our way in the direction of the rhinos. We’ve been tracking them for an hour now but they’ve constantly maintained their distance. They’re too alert for us to get near. They run off as soon as they pick up our scent or hear a rock move, twig break, or camera click. We’ve come a long way to film these rhinos, the symbol of Somkhanda, and it seems we’re going to have to go a little bit further still.

The story of Somkhanda is a fascinating one. It’s South Africa’s first – and only – proclaimed community game reserve. In 2005, land for the 40,000-acre game reserve in South Africa’s Zululand was restored to the community of Somkhanda, the Gumbi Clan, through the land reform process. The community chose to place the majority of the land in conservation and, in partnership with Wildlands Conservation Trust, create a game reserve to drive development in the area. The decision was lauded as an enlightened move with long-term benefits for the community and was supported by the Department of Environmental Affairs, who said, “The sustainable use and conservation of wild animal and indigenous vegetation resources have the ability to transform the poor rural economy of South Africa.” The project is expected to create about 80 jobs.

Zululand Game Reserve

Image credit: Wildlife ACT

A haven for rhinos

Just to get off the ground, Somkhanda needed support from a wide range of organisations. When it came to the wildlife, one of those organisations was WWF and its Black Rhino Range Expansion Program. Wildlife ACT is also one of the partners involved and one of their trustees, Simon Morgan, explained the Expansion Program, “The aim is to move rhinos from their source populations into new areas where they can thrive. The idea is getting your eggs out of one basket and setting up new populations.” According to WWF, the project, “aims to increase the numbers and growth rate of the critically endangered black rhino. It does this by facilitating partnerships between landowners with good black rhino habitat.” Since the project began in 2003, eight new black rhino populations have been created in South Africa and nearly 130 black rhinos have been translocated. Somkhanda is responsible for one of these new populations.

This is especially inspiring news considering that the levels of poaching in South Africa have reached epidemic proportions, with South Africa currently losing over one thousand rhinos per year. The establishing of new satellite populations of rhinos is just what the conservationists ordered, and Somkhanda, with its perfect black rhino habitat, fits the bill perfectly.

Through working together, the conservationists are starting to have a better chance of helping the rhino. As Simon says, “One of the biggest things that resulted from the poaching epidemic has been the NGOs coming together and realising that they need to collaborate. In the past, you’ve always seen people work in their own little silos and this poaching pressure has broken that all down. Because people are realising that there is not one organisation or not one strategy that’s going to break it up and do it. People are slowly starting to see these changes happening and how we are doing things and Project Rhino in KZN is a prime example of how everybody has just bandied together. There has been a realisation that if we don’t work together, it’s not going to come right.”

We carefully, oh-so-slowly make our way through the trees and bushes in a crouching position so as not to disturb the branches. Sneaking up on these rhinos is like playing a real-life version of the children’s game Operation, just without the threat of a small shock. With his practised eye Zama sees the four white rhinos through the bush at a distance. I don’t even see any grey. “If we walk down to the left, we can cut them off,” he says.

Rhinos in Zululand

Image credit: Wildlife ACT

How rhinos act as flagships

The knock-on effect of having black rhinos in Somkhanda has been a revelation. As WWF explains, “Black rhinos act as flagships for creating larger blocks of land for conservation purposes. This benefits many other species, such as elephants, vultures, leopard, tortoises and wild dogs.” With the introduction of rhinos into a reserve, everything changes. It is not just a barren piece of land but now an important reserve holding critical rhinos and that, in turn, creates the opportunity to introduce other wildlife too. After the rhinos were brought to Somkhanda in 2008, kudu, zebra, wildebeest, black-backed jackal, white rhino, wild dog and nyala were also introduced. The reserve is not stopping there either. Elephant and buffalo will be arriving shortly and further down the line cheetah and lion will also be introduced.

With the wildlife flourishing, Somkhanda will be in a position to attract foreign and local visitors to its rolling hills and ultimately establish a sustainable business for the community. Once there’s a surplus of game, the community will be able to sell it. The idea is that revenue can be generated from live game sales, game products and ecotourism.

What makes this all the more inspiring is that this is taking place in Zululand, considered by some to be the birthplace of wildlife conservation in Africa. Hluhluwe-iMmfolozi Park – the oldest proclaimed park in South Africa – lies a hundred kilometres south of Somkhanda and was the stronghold of the last white rhinos in the world, and the home of the great ‘Operation Rhino’ of the 1960s. It is hoped that places like Somkhanda will be able to continue the legacy of Zululand’s conservation.

Zama goes ahead and then returns to our group slowly. “The rhinos are here,” he says nonchalantly. We edge forward and peer around the trees to see the four imperious rhinos standing in the road. We watch them feed and potter around the road like old aunts in their flower gardens. The bush is very still and when one of us eventually loses concentration and accidentally kicks a stone the rhinos’ ears prick up like stepped-on rakes. Their poor eyesight means they can’t see us but they know we’re here. They feed a little bit longer but soon move on around the bend and disappear into Somkhanda’s dense bushes.

While in Somkhanda, the Rhino Africa video team captured the work Wildlife ACT is undertaking. This video tells the story of their vital work with Zululand’s rhinos…