Adventure with the Nakasongola rhinos

THE holiday season may be more than a month away, but here is an excuse to get away at an excursion in a relaxing countryside setting. Pack your bags for Ziwa Ranches in Nakasongola District.

After 170 kilometres (about 2 hours drive) from Kampala to the ranch, you will not only have arrived at the biggest ranch in the country but you will wallow in the wild with duikers, bush bucks, crocodiles, hippos and a variety of birds including the shoebill stock.

But the intriguing attractions are the four-year-old paired rhinos, Bella and Taleo, and Moja and Kori. The four white southern rhinos, brought from Solio Ranch in Kenya on July 20, 2005, have quickly settled in and are roaming the green plains of Nakasongola. For the first two weeks of their quarantine, the rhinos were kept in wooden cages. When they were released, they were deliberately left to wander into an electric fence so that they may learn to respect the fence.

They all got a few (electric) shocks. After that, they stayed away from it, Yvonne Verkaik, the executive director Rhino Fund Uganda, says.

On the day of release, the rhinos were not given grass to eat.

When the wire on one side of the cage was removed, the hungry rhinos slowly grazed their way out of the sanctuary into the 7000-hectare Ziwa Ranch.

They spent a few hours grazing very close to the horse paddocks and intimately with the cattle. For Bella and Taleo, it seems the grass got greener and tastier further to the north of the ranch where they decided to wander off. They never returned. Moja and Kori too took off just before dark.

After a few days of their freedom, the couples relentlessly explored the sanctuary in search of suitable spots to chill and play. In the process, they handed the monitoring rangers a challenge of looking for them despite having VHF transmitters implanted in their horns.

A week after their arrival, Dr Pete Morkel from Frankfurt Zoological Society flew in from Ngorongoro to do the implant.

According to Verkaik, the rhinos have finally settled down in two separate ‘homes’ where they spend most of the day playing in or near the swamps.

Every evening after sunset, one couple comes to the headquarters to spend the night. An hour before sunrise, they set off again towards the swamps, she says.

During hot hours of the day, the rhinos frolic in the swampy areas or graze harmoniously with the cattle. Other times, they may roam as far off as possible, but visitors to the ranch are almost certain to see these prized attractions during a game search.

Even though the transmitters enable rangers to keep a 24-hour track record of the rhinos, it should be reasonable to estimate at least two hours of tracking.

Tracking will bring you close to 20 species of wildlife on the sanctuary including bushbucks, reedbuck, waterbuck, Uganda kob, duiker, hippos, leopards, crocodile and the rare shoebill stork in the Lugogo swamp.

Tracking may take a toll on you, but you can spend the day relaxing or picnicking in the green landscape.

Before the 1980s, eastern black and northern white rhinos were present in Uganda. They could be seen roaming in the northern and north east plains of Acholi and Karamoja. However, between 1983 and 1984, they became extinct. The last northern white rhino died in Murchison Falls National Park in 1983 and the last eastern black rhino died in 1984 in Kidepo National Park.

The ones at Ziwa Ranches are Southern White sub-species rhinos. Africa is said to have just over 11,000 white rhinos. Since their extinction, rhinos have become an unusual prized attraction in Uganda.

Besides Ziwa Ranch, the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre in Entebbe, with two rhinos, is the only other place with rhinos in Uganda. The rhinos in Ziwa ranch are the first to be brought in Uganda for breeding.

Two more southern white rhinos are expected early next year. White and black rhinos are also expected in the country next year as the fund aims at establishing a population of between 15 and 20 Rhinos.

Later, the rhinos will be relocated to protected areas in their original habitat like Murchison Falls and Kidepo Valley national parks, says Verkaik.

While we wait for the rhino numbers to increase, the four white rhinos are already making a fascinating sight. Seeing the rhinos basking in the sun and wallowing in the swamps is the absolute crown on all the hard work we did the last three years! says Verkaik. We are now wishing for a first rhino calf to be born at Ziwa!

Visitors to the ranch are allowed to pack food. Lunch buffets with eight local dishes can be organised for groups of five to 25 people, each paying about sh10,000. But this requires a 24-hour advance notice. Snacks and soft drinks are also sold.

Until 2006, when plans to build a lodge would have materialised, bush camping is the only option for self-sufficient adventurers with tents. Unfortunately, the sanctuary doesn't have tents for hire.

We are expecting funding for construction of camping facilities, says Verkaik. Rhino Fund Uganda runs an education programme, which is free for schools. The fund visits schools all over the country with their outreach education programme. We also run an on-site education programme at the sanctuary. Schools can book a date with our education team on 077 607267 and they can bring their pupils to visit. Both programmes are free of charge! Verkaik said.