Off a busy thoroughfare that slices through Northern Uganda is a large tract of land where white rhinos live and breed. Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary claims to be the only place in the world where you can trek for rhinos. Trekking to see wildlife has become big business in East Africa. People wait years to be the few daily who walk among the gorillas and sometimes the elusive giants don't even appear. But rhinos? What's the charm there?
I had occasion to drop by Ziwa one day and for $35 -- an enormous sum here -- I soon found myself on foot with a camouflaged guide on a narrow path passing through woodland mixed with tall grasses. The guide knew exactly where to find them since all six stick mostly together and have 24 hour guards. Past a small clump of bushes we saw them lying lazily under a tree, their ears twitching to swat away flies. They let out occasional groans, but otherwise from a distance they could be mistaken for large boulders, so inactive were they in the noonday sun.
As little as 30 years ago, more than 400 rhinos roamed wild in Uganda, mostly in parks and preserves. The last white rhino died in 1982 in Murchison Falls and no black rhinos have been seen since 1983. Though rhinos have been particularly hard hit, I've been shocked to see almost no mammalian wildlife roaming around Uganda -- no monkeys, no baboons, no antelope or even dik-dik. I've asked about this numerous times and the answer has always been that people chase them away. This is unlike neighboring Kenya where wildlife enjoy significantly better protection.
In the rhino's case, poaching and then the civil war that ousted the brutal Idi Amin in 1979 put an end to them. So the rhinos at Ziwa had to be imported. Two came from Orlando, shipped by cargo plane in large wooden crates, and four were donated by Kenya. The goal of the sanctuary is to breed these rhinos and then begin reintroducing them into Uganda's parks.
"Nandi!" shouted the guide in a commanding tone. The largest of the six, a voluptuous female with a large strong horn hauled herself from the earth and came to attention. The rhinos are not domesticated by any means, but they have been around trainers long enough to do as told. Nandi and one other female are pregnant, the guide explained. After sixteen months of gestation, the first birth in the sanctuary is due in April.
The sanctuary is run by Rhino Fund Uganda, The manager, an enthusiastic South African woman, is seeking approval to build an exclusive resort on the property so as to bring in more money for the breeding program. It's a pretty quiet place right now. A small backpackers' guesthouse and a restaurant are the only excitement, except for the rhinos of course.
Judging by the comments in the guest book, a lot of people were unimpressed with Ziwa's offerings, complaining there was not enough to see. A bunch of lazy rhinos sleeping under a tree is apparently not enough for some. But I was rather impressed. I'd never been so close to these animals at eye level, where I could feel the yellowed grass brushing my leg and get a sense of their habitat by traversing it on foot.
I asked my guide what would happen if one suddenly decided it didn't want me there. "They can charge at 45 kilometers an hour," he said. "You have to climb a tree." But for the moment we were safe. Though they could hear and smell us, rhinos are blind as bats. Thirty feet is as far as they can see and I was just out of range.