Responsible Rhino Tourism Can Help Save Iconic Species

Behind the War on Rhino Poaching
A behind the scenes exclusive 

The festive season is supposed to be a time of relaxation, holidays, fun and family. But for those who care for orphaned young rhinos whose mothers were brutally butchered by poachers, it is a sad and busy time of the year.

Megan Lategan, manager of the Zululand Rhino Orphanage, says rhino poaching increases during this period, as it is a known fact that border security during this time of the year is usually not as effective as is should be.  Traffic at the border posts peaks during this time, increasing opportunities to smuggle rhino horn through, undetected. Lategan says poaching incidents also show an increase during full-moon periods, as poachers are able to navigate their way through the bush much easier.

Megan Lategan with Khula.Photo: Courtesy of Zululand Rhino Orphanage.

According to her, tragedy led to the establishment of the Zululand Rhino Orphanage, when another orphanage suffered a brutal attack by poachers in February 2017. Due to an ongoing security threat, this facility decided to close its doors, which created an urgent need for these rhino orphans to be rehomed. The Zululand Conservation Trust came to the rescue by opening a new facility where these orphans could be cared for.

“Every orphaned Rhino calf we receive has its own unique history,” she says. They have received orphans as young as two days old that have never even had milk from their mothers, up to the tender age of ten months. These babies obviously only spent ten months with their mothers in the bush.

At the Zululand Rhino Orphanage, every animal is treated as an individual, as they all have their own unique personalities and needs. A two-day-old calf poses a huge challenge to the caregivers as he has not received colostrum – which contains vitally important antibodies – through his mother’s milk. This compromises the animal in a variety of ways. “A lot of research is being done on the various types of colostrum that can be given to these calves, as well as on female blood plasma which can be administered through transfusions, in an effort to give these animals the necessary antibodies to strengthen their immune system,” says Lategan.

She adds that these young orphans are often more accepting of people and caregivers because they have never really been exposed to the wild. They are usually very trusting and therefore allow the caregivers to work with them – to the extent that they begin to regard them as mother figures, depending heavily upon them for the first few months of their lives.

On the other side of the scale are the calves of approximately six to ten months of age, that have had the opportunity to spend some time with their mothers before poachers destroyed their world. These calves witnessed their mothers’ slaughter and most of them also sustained hack injuries during these incidents. They usually are extremely traumatised and suffer from post-traumatic stress, which makes them very wary of humans.

“The human form that has caused all their pain and stress and robbed them of their mothers, now suddenly is their support system. This is a very difficult adjustment for these little victims,” Lategan says.

In cases like these, it takes a lot longer to form a bond with the calves and establish trust. This becomes a difficult process as wounds and other health issues such as diarrhoea, need to be treated immediately. “Many calves are only rescued after having spent many days on their own in the bush. The stress experienced during this time cause stomach ulcers, which can cause diarrhoea and colic – a huge challenge when it comes to the care of these orphans.”

Lategan says they are extremely emotional animals, and stress and trauma affect them adversely. All these factors complicate the trust process and it requires a lot of effort and patience from the caregivers. “The Zululand Rhino Orphanage is a tragic necessity that came into being due to South Africa’s ever-increasing poaching statistics,” says Lategan. It is their mission to return all these orphans back to the wild once the rehabilitation process has been completed.

Bhanoyi, a four-month-old male whose mother was poached.
Khula and his goat friend, Buzi.
Bhanoyi sleeping under a heat lamp.
Mpilo – another orphan whose mother was poached.
Khula and Bhanoyi napping under their heat lamps on a cold day.
Khula and Buzi.
Charlie and Moomin.
Charlie and Moomin.

According to the Department of Environmental Affairs’ latest statistics – announced on September 21, 2018 – a total of 508 rhinos had been poached in South Africa from January 1 to August 30, 2018. The majority were poached in the Kruger National Park – a total of 292, followed by 83 in KwaZulu- Natal and 50 in the North West Province.

There are currently 530 rhino poaching-related cases on the court roll, according to the department. These cases involve a total of 750 accused and comprise 1 738 charges. Charges range from rhino poaching and rhino-horn trafficking to the illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.

2019 commenced with the interception of 36 rhino horns – worth about R23 million – at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. These horns were destined for Dubai and were discovered hidden underneath decorative items in various boxes.

R23mil rhino horn

Mid-January, three Kruger National Park rangers – based at the Crocodile Bridge section of the park – were also arrested on suspicion of rhino poaching.  These are rangers who are tasked with the protection of our wildlife!

“It is a war out there – an unofficial war,” says Louis Ebersohn of African Wildlife Services, based in Limpopo. He says their counter-poaching operations are not allowed to function according to a war zone’s rules of engagement – they are subject to civil society’s rules regarding the escalation of force.

Ebersohn says in 2017, 150 counter-poaching rangers lost their lives in Africa, 55 of these in South Africa. He adds if you compare these mortality figures to those of official war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the mortality rate in the poaching war is higher than that of these war zones. He states that during counter-poaching operations their rangers use tools such as helicopters, night vision equipment, specially trained K9 units and electronic communication systems, to name but a few.  “But these are all useless without feet on the ground, information and intelligence. Reaction to intelligence must be proactive and not reactive.”

Louis Ebersohn and one of the K9 dogs during training. Photo: Riaan de Beer

The K9 units are called Force Multipliers, as the dogs give them the additional capacity and strengthen the power of these units. “The dogs at African Wildlife Services are tracking- and patrol dogs and are trained to bite. They also give the counter-poaching units the ability to work more intensively during the night,” says Ebersohn. Each dog costs 23 000 USD to train over a period of two years before the animal is ready to join counter-poaching operations.

Imprinting- and tracking training starts when the dogs are six weeks old. From the age of 3 months, the animals are taught to bite. At six months old the dogs are familiar with helicopters and loud sounds. Ebersohn says once the dogs become sexually mature and physically big and strong enough – which is at around 18 months – they are introduced to basic obedience and fitness training. “After the two-year training period, the dogs are ready to become operational. By then they are not scared of gunshots and can make physical arrests and perform other duties.” According to him, counter-poaching units are often restricted to reactive abilities and cannot be proactive due to very little assistance by the police and the army.

Members of the Rapid Response Unit. Photos: Courtesy of African Wildlife Services.

“The modus operandi and profiles of poachers are extremely diverse. Their biggest challenge is subsistence poachers – those who poach to put food on the table. Unfortunately, their numbers are escalating through the use of snares and weapons, as well as because of human encroachment on the available natural resources such as water, land and shelter. All these factors contribute to human/animal conflict,” says Ebersohn. Other types of poachers who poses a huge threat are those who poach purely to enrich themselves and those who do it for muti purposes.”

“Commercial poaching is often done by former special forces members from various countries in Africa and the rest of the world. These are international organised-crime syndicates who also deal in human -, drug- and gun trafficking,” adds Ebersohn.

“The various types of poachers all use different tactics and weapons. The organised crime syndicates – comprising of former special forces or ex-police members – have access to the same technology, training and tactics as that of the special forces, such as those being used in counter-insurgency bush-war operations.” He, however, notes that subsistence poachers rely more on the use of traditional snares, dogs and spears.

Unless the demand for rhino horn ceases, poaching will continue to be a serious problem for many years to come. The demand comes from many Asian countries – particularly Vietnam – which is the largest market for these horns. Many people believe these horns have magical and medicinal properties, but – in reality – the horns are comprised of keratin. Keratin is the protein found in hair and fingernails. It is, in essence, as simple as that, but nevertheless complicated enough to threaten the rhino population of Africa and those across the world.

Tips on responsible tourism

Help Rhino conservation efforts!

 Privately-owned game reserves in the greater Kruger conservancy area play a vital role in providing safe habitats for the critically endangered White and Black Rhinos and are mainly responsible for protecting animals on their lands. Visitors too can play a critical role in conserving the magnificent Rhino species by following these simple tips.

How are Safari operators and the destination you choose protecting the Rhino

Research the lodges and booking specialists for your Safari and make sure they are part of integrated operations to protect these magnificent rhinos.

For example, here at we work closely with a variety of organisations who provide:

  • Facilities where orphaned Rhinos are cared for until they can be released into the wild
  • Counter-poaching operations where rangers use tools such as helicopters, night vision equipment, specially trained K9 units and electronic communication systems
  • In-depth screening of rangers is provided by all lodges on our website


Uplifting communities

What many private game lodges take seriously is their involvement in economic and social development with communities close to their reserves. Responsible rhino tourism includes choosing safari operators and destinations which are uplifting local communities and involving locals in making rhino protection a priority.

Many of our game lodges actively focus on creating viable employment and development opportunities to provide people with opportunities to improve their living conditions and opportunities in life, thus reducing their incentive to turn to poaching.

Understanding and educating fellow tourists

 Responsible rhino tourism also involves an accurate understanding of the demand for rhino horns and spreading the word to your friends and colleagues. The demand comes from many Asian countries – particularly Vietnam – which is the largest market for these horns.

Many people believe these horns have magical and medicinal properties, but – in reality – the horns are comprised of keratin. Keratin is the protein found in hair and fingernails. It is, in essence, as simple as that, but nevertheless complicated enough to threaten the rhino population of Africa and those across the world.

By educating yourself and your communities, you can help dispel the myth that Rhino horns have these magical properties.

Make a difference today.