Bella and her baby Luna at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary

Baby rhino excites Uganda's sanctuary

Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary revels in successful breeding programme

Bella and her three-month old daughter Luna look unbothered by the scores of curious eyes and whispers of human beings in their vicinity.

Luna particularly cares less. She keeps climbing up and down her mother’s massive greyish body lying under a shade to shield from the mid-afternoon sun.

We are at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary which is about 176km north of Kampala city on the Gulu highway towards Murchison Falls National Park— the only place in Uganda where you will find rhinos in the wild— more than 30 years since the last rhino was spotted.

To the right of where we are standing is a group of 17 people including tourists gazing in awe at the two pachyderms.

About 150 metres parallel to the tourists, is our smaller group of four, including the sanctuary’s armed ranger, Joel Angala.

Moments earlier, before we entered the thicket of thorny acacia and tall grass, Angala had briefed us about the ‘do’s and don’ts’ when trekking rhinos.

"Do not make noise; don’t move too close to the rhino and if it should charge at you, climb the nearest tree or hide behind a bush,"Angala, who has been a ranger at Ziwa over the last decade, said.

We are religiously following the cardinal instruction of keeping the 30-metre distance between us and the rhinos.

But before I know it, I am persuading Angala to let us move a couple of metres closer to Bella and her baby so we could see what exactly they are doing.

Dr. Felix Patton, the sanctuary’s technical and security advisor who is beside me shakes his head in disapproval of my request. Instead he suggests that we change direction and join the tourists who seem to have a better view.

We do this very quickly but carefully not to attract the attention and possible wrath of Bella.Nursing mothers are the most dangerous if they feel threatened, we had earlier been told.  Bella though remains sprawled on the ground but she is now puffing every couple of seconds.  I sense danger but Dr. Patton says Bella is okay.

Luna has since abandoned her game and she is now swallowed up by the tall green grass as she lies beside her mother. I can see her yet I still feel I am too far.  I pray that at least Bella stands up so we could see her whole frame.  She first twirls her big ears in all sorts of directions and then, as though there is telepathy between her and me, she obliges. She lazily, almost in slow-motion style, begins to rise with her hind-quarters supporting her huge frame.

This, it seems, is the moment tourists have silently been waiting for. In unison, they adjust their miniature cameras and i-phones to take Bella’s pictures.   Bella and Luna are part of the 15 rhinos that now call Ziwa sanctuary their habitat, thanks to the breeding programme launched here about a decade ago.

When Rhino Fund Uganda, a non-government organisation, was founded in 1997 with the aim of overseeing and guiding the breeding and reintroduction of the Rhinoceros back into Uganda’s national parks, few imagined the current level of success.

The civil war that toppled Idi Amin’s regime followed by a spate of insecurity decimated hundreds of the northern white rhino population which is native to Uganda and conservationists believe the last rhino was last seen in the country in 1983.

However, ten uninterrupted years of the programme have led to unprecedented success at the sanctuary and it has since become a popular destination.  Most of the tour operators travelling from Kampala towards Murchison Falls National Park include a stop at the sanctuary as a permanent part of their itineraries.  The reserve, a former cattle ranch comprising about7000-hectares (70 sq km) of savannah and woodlands, started with six rhinos, thanks to two rhinos donated by the US-based Disney Animal Kingdom and monetary donations which enabled Rhino Fund Uganda to purchase four rhinos from Kenya, the sanctuary now boasts of 15 rhinos.

Bella, described by the sanctuary’s rangers as one of the calmest, has since given birth to three calves including Augustu and Donna besides her latest addition, Luna.

There is also Nandi who has contributed three calves; Uhuru, Obama, and Malaika, as well as Kori who is the mother of Justice, Laloyo and Waribe. The sanctuary’s crash (group of rhinos) is completed by the three bulls; Taleo, Moja and Hasani.

Over the last five years, there have been nine births and these are the first rhinos born in Uganda in over 30 years, Dr. Patton says.

Although the sanctuary has since attracted other animals such as water buck, hippos, leopards, warthogs, bush buck, oribi, duiker, vervet monkeys, shoebills and several snake species, rhinos are the most important on this reserve.

"They have bred very well. There is lots of good grass here but they can only breed once every two years and that is if they are in the best of health,"Patton says, hinting about the rhinos’ gestation period which lasts up to 16 months.

A couple of hours earlier, during our chat over a meal of spiced rice and goat stew amidst calm rain showers in the open but iron-roofed shelter that the sanctuary’s patrons use as a bar, Patton explained why these rhinos are very important to Uganda.

"Rhinos were re-introduced into Uganda because there used to be hundreds of them here and it is part of Ugandan heritage to have rhinos."

"If you say you have Ugandan wildlife without rhinos, you don’t have Ugandan wildlife. That is why there was an initiative to bring them back."

Although the northern white rhinos which used to roam parts of northern Uganda are now out of range or extinct, it is their closest sub-species— the southern white rhinos— normally found in southern Africa which have successfully colonised this reserve.

"The rhinos at this ranch have bred beyond expectation," Angie Genade, the sanctuary’s executive director told The Independent on July 28. But she still could not put an exact date when rhinos could finally return to their original habitat, believed to be near Murchison Falls National Park.

"Things don’t happen overnight because we are working with animals, we cannot tell them what we want them to do, we can only monitor what they are doing and then use that and plan," she said.

Genade who has overseen the sanctuary’s developments since 2008 says its administrators plan to bring in more adult females to accelerate the process of birth which will also reduce the projected time the release of the rhinos to the parks is expected.

Dr. Patton thinks 20 years (from now) is the short term projection when Ugandans could finally see rhinos in the game parks. This will only be possible when the sanctuary’s numbers rise to about 40 rhinos with 20 remaining at the reserve as breeding stock.

"If we get a breeding stock of at least 20 rhinos, the excess of that will then be released into the wild," he said.

Meanwhile the executive director hopes South Africa will honour their promise made three years ago of donating the female white rhinos.

"If I get three adult females next year, then it means that we will double the amount of babies being born at the sanctuary," she says.

"We need to make sure that their genetic diversity is good enough for them to become another breeding herd in the national park," she adds.  But as the Namibian-born Genade plans for the rapid multiplication of rhinos in the country within the shortest period possible, she is equally apprehensive about the future considering the animals are facing an unprecedented onslaught of poaching.

Rhino poaching is at its highest level in Africa.  In 2014 alone, South Africa which boasts the biggest population of rhinos on the continent has lost over 700 rhinos. Last year, the country lost 1004 while in 2011, rhino killings in South Africa were as many as 448 according to the global wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC.

A 2013 report released by the World Wildlife Fund, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and TRAFFIC said rhino poaching had reached a 15-year high, pushing the animals close to extinction.

Rhinos are listed as critically endangered species and only around 25,000 remain in the wild—a figure which is just a quarter of the estimated numbers that roamed Africa in the early 20th century.

In response, the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s park rangers, in cooperation with the army, police and other national agencies have used sophisticated surveillance techniques and improved security to reduce the number of poaching incidents in Uganda’s national parks. The government is also planning to amend the Uganda Wildlife Act to include far tougher penalties for those caught poaching or facilitating supply.

Genade is aware of all these developments but also recognises that conservationists across the continent are now dealing with a highly sophisticated rhino poaching mafia.

"We need to do everything we can to ensure that our security is on the highest level," she says.

Genade is serious.

At the sanctuary, there is a security force of 80 rangers many whom are armed, and they patrol the 86km electric perimeter fence 24 hours a day. But Dr. Patton, who holds both a Master’s and a PhD in Conservation Biology, all about rhinos and rhino behaviour, remains vigilant.

"This sanctuary is not only of Ugandan significance but also of global significance," he says,"Losing one rhino when we have only 15 would be a huge loss."

Everyone at the sanctuary describes how they work with the community to secure the sanctuary.

Juliet Nakanjako, the administration manager at the sanctuary, says most of the sanctuary’s 160 employees now come from the surrounding villages.

"We need their assistance, information, their partnership, and we need to be their friends and we need to communicate with each other whenever necessary," Genade says.   So far, these safety measures, dedicated staff, and the lush savannah grass have allowed Luna, her mother, Bella, and the other rhinos to thrive. But there is still a long way to go before the southern white rhino returns to Uganda’s wilds.