“It isn’t going to rain,” says Moses, as he hands out ponchos and rubber boots. “These are just in case.”
I don’t share his confidence. It’s the middle of Uganda’s rainy season, ominous clouds are hanging low in the sky, and I’m about to stride out into a national park in search of rhinos, carrying a backpack full of expensive camera gear. What could possibly go wrong?
But I’m not a weather expert, so I trust Moses. With his rhino guide uniform and crinkly eyes, he looks like he knows what he’s talking about. So I stuff the waterproof into my backpack, pull on my boots, and off we go.
This visit to Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is the first stop in a grand two-week tour of Western Uganda. I’ve been living and working in the capital, Kampala, for three months (find out more about what I’ve been up to here), and I decided it was time to see a bit more of the country. So I invited my friend and fellow travel blogger Linn of travellinn.net to come and join me, hired a car and driver, and planned an epic route that would take in all of the main national parks and attractions in the Western circuit of this incredible country.
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was the obvious starting point. Situated about 100 miles or three hours north of Kampala, it’s the only place in the country where you can see rhinos in the wild. And not only can you see them, you can get pretty up close and personal with them too – as we’re about to find out.
But first, there’s some other interesting wildlife to see. No, not rhinos yet, but a herd of incredible Ankole long-horned cattle, being grazed in the park by a local farmer. You come across these cows everywhere in Uganda, with their enormous horns that can reach eight feet from tip to tip. Every time I see them it astounds me that they can even keep their heads up – until I learned that the horns are actually hollow and incredibly light. Seems like cheating, somehow, but I like their style.
I want to stop and take more photos with them, but we have bigger fish, or rather, mammals, to fry…
Bella and Zawadi
And after only another five or ten minutes walking, there they are: a mother and young rhino, resting in a glade not twenty metres away from us.
Moses introduces us to Bella (great name!) and her son Zawadi. Bella is 17 years old and Zawadi is one and a half. Bella was one of the first rhinos at Ziwa – she was brought over from Kenya when the sanctuary was founded – and she’s apparently the calmest rhino in the park. Moses tells us she’s always happy to be there and never gives anyone any trouble, and from the way she seems to be content just relaxing under the trees I can see what he means.
Zawadi, who is Bella’s fourth baby, is a little bit more restless. He lies with his mother for a bit, but after a few moments decides to get up and go for a little wander by himself. He looks at us curiously, but doesn’t seem the slightest bit bothered by our presence just a short distance away. It’s breathtaking to be so insanely close to not one but two wild rhinos and I’m in awe.
As we watch them, Moses quietly tells us a bit more about Ziwa.
Rhinos were declared extinct in Uganda due to poaching in 1983. In 1997 Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was established to reintroduce them. A large cattle farm in the centre of the country was identified and funds were raised to buy the land and resettle the people who lived there. The project was completed in 2004 and it’s now a park measuring 70 km square, surrounded by electric fences to keep the poachers out.
They started with just six animals: four brought from Kenya in 2005 (including Bella), and two from the Disney Animal Kingdom in the USA in 2006. The first baby was born in 2009 – a male named Obama in honour of the then US president due to the fact that his mother was from the USA and his father was from Kenya. Today, thanks to a successful breeding programme they now have 22 rhinos, and numbers are increasing.
Laloyo and Madam
After chilling with my namesake and her son for about twenty minutes, it’s time to move on and see who else we can find. And we don’t have far to go before we come across our next pair: Laloyo and baby Madam.
Laloyo, whose name means ‘victory’, is seven years old. Her baby Madam, who is just six months, was the first female rhino to be born after a string of six males. She was named in honour of the female Executive Director of Rhino Fund Uganda.
Like all the rhinos in Ziwa, Laloyo and Madam are Southern White Rhinos. The name ‘white’ has nothing to do with their colour (obviously), but is supposedly the result of a misinterpretation. According to the story, Dutch settlers in South Africa used to refer to this particular type of rhino as ‘wijd’, meaning wide, a reference to the shape of the animal’s mouth. When the English arrived they misunderstood and heard ‘white’. So the rhino with the wide mouth ended up becoming the ‘white’ rhino, and the other type, with a narrow pointed mouth, became the ‘black’ rhino.
Just as with Bella and Zawadi, this pair seem entirely unfazed by our presence, and at one point even start to wander towards us. When they come within about twenty metres, we’re made to move back – a sensible precaution given that, no matter how peaceful they seem, these are still dangerous wild animals that can run up to 45 miles an hour and weigh nearly 3 tonnes.
Though I don’t think cute little baby Madam looks exactly threatening – and nor, it seems, does another group of rhino-lovers just a short distance away.
It feels a little crowded with so many of us all gathered round just two rhinos, so Moses leads Linn and me away to find our third pair of the day, Nandi and Apache.
Nandi and Apache
Nandi is 19 and baby Apache is an adorable 8 months old. Nandi is another one of the founding mothers – she came from the Disney Animal Kingdom in the USA and is mother to Obama, the first baby to be born here. Apache is her fifth calf.
Nandi and Apache – and indeed all the rhinos at Ziwa – are tracked 24/7 by a team of two rangers, supported by armed security guards. This is to protect them from poachers, who will do just about anything to lay their hands on the hugely valuable horns which are prized in Asian countries as an ingredient in traditional medicine and as a symbol of status and wealth. Gram for gram rhino horn is worth more than gold.
But here at Ziwa, thanks to the electric fences and the hardworking rangers, they’ve had no trouble.
Sometimes poachers do try to come for the antelopes that also graze in the park – for the meat – but so far the precious rhinos have been spared.
As a ranger Moses himself is not armed, but he tells us that he used to be in the army. He’s 40, and has worked here for four years, ever since being headhunted from him his job as a training officer. Before working at Ziwa he did training for peacekeeping forces in Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan, and also worked in Sudan and DR Congo.
He knew nothing about rhinos before he came to Ziwa, but after specialist training and four years’ experience he now trains his fellow rangers in military skills, PR, conflict management and rhino behaviour. Together he and his team do a wonderful job protecting these amazing and rare animals so that lucky people like you and I can enjoy them.
After about two hours, and six beautiful and gentle rhinos, Moses eventually tells us it’s time to leave. I’m gutted – I’d love to stay longer – but reluctantly I fire off the last photograph, turn my back on these incredible animals, and follow Moses back to the information centre to return my poncho and boots.
And guess what. It didn’t rain.
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary – Facts and Tips
- The park is run by Uganda Wildlife Authority and Rhino Fund Uganda.
- It costs $45 for a guided rhino walk if you are a foreign non-resident. It’s $35 for foreigners who live in Uganda, and 30,000 Ugandan shillings for locals. You can also stay overnight in the park – either camping or in the Ziwa Rhino Lodge – if you do this but don’t do a rhino walk (but why you would do that I have no idea) the entry fee is $20.
- The best time to see rhinos is between 8-10 am and 4-6 pm but walks are available all day. We started at around 11 am and saw plenty! The park closes at 6 pm though if you are arriving after 6 pm and staying overnight they’ll let you in until 9 pm as long as you let them know in advance – and there is a $20 surcharge for this. If you arrive after 9 pm they won’t let you in at all.
- For your walk, it’s best to wear long trousers and sturdy shoes – and bring socks if you might want to borrow wellies. Insect repellant and suncream are recommended. And if you have a camera with a zoom lens, bring it! You do get pretty close to the rhinos, but you’ll still need your zoom. For the technically minded, most of my photos were taken with a Canon 5D IV, a 70-200 f2.8 L II lens, and a 2x extender.
- As well as seeing the rhinos, there are other activities you can do in the park, including a canoe ride to see the endangered shoebill storks, a night walk, or a birding/nature walk. For a full list of activities and prices, click here.
Have you been to Ziwa or are you thinking of going? Got any other thoughts or questions? Please comment below, I’d love to hear from you!
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