Out with the rhino team.
The 18 Big Life rangers (working closely with KWS) that patrol the rhino area in the northern part of the Chyulu Hills patrol tirelessly day and night. Together, each week, they patrol for 756 hours. Despite this though, they rarely get a glimpse of a rhino. The thick bush, coupled with the rhino’s shy nature, makes a sighting very rare. Most of the rangers (even those who have been in the area for years) have only seen one a few times and those have been fleeting glimpses at best. Last month they get so close to one of the few remaining Eastern Black Rhinos in the Chyulu Hills that they could touch it. Sadly it was for all the wrong reasons.
Like all these incidents do, it started with hurried messages over the Big Life radio network. “Gun shots heard by KWS rangers” – first a burst of 5 and then 10 minutes later a further 2. It was getting late and the sun was disappearing below the horizon, the poachers would want to get out of the park before sun rise, they knew that as soon as it was light 5Y-BJY would be in the air carrying out aerial patrol. The first thing to do was to create cut off ambushes using teams of Big Life and KWS rangers, with any luck we would get the poachers as they escaped the park.
The ambush teams were up all night and when Richard and I were in the air at 6am the next morning they were still on the ground, sweeping the area for signs of the poachers and a potentially dead or wounded rhino or elephant. It carried on like this for 72 hours, 30 rangers sweeping the area and Richard and me in the air desperately searching the dense bush for signs of anything. Something had to have been hit, the spacing of the shots suggested that the animal had been hit and then managed to stumble off injured only to have been found and finished off with the further two shots heard 10 minutes later.
On day three the search finally yielded a result; a seriously injured and distressed rhino found in thick bush south of where the gun shots had been heard. Getting too close caused it great distress so we kept our distance and waited for Poghorn (the KWS Tsavo-West vet funded by the Sheldrick Foundation) to arrive, at this point it was clear that rhino had been hit, we just didn’t know quite how bad the injuries were.
An hour later and Poghorn had arrived and crept downwind of the rhino to fire a dart into its right shoulder from close range. As the sedative started to work and we closed in, the extent of the damage that the poachers had done started to become apparent. The rhino’s thick hide was peppered with bullet holes. All 7 of the shots the poachers had fired had hit what we now knew was a bull of about 15. He had been hit four times in the front legs, twice in the gut and once above the left shoulder. As Poghorn further examined and probed the wounds the elation we had felt having found the animal alive turned to utter despair. The bullets that had hit the gut had tumbled leaving behind a trail of torn up flesh. The four bullets that had hit the legs had shattered the bone to the extent that the left knee joint no long existed.
After lengthy consultation over the phone with rhino experts and vets around the country a unanimous decision was reached; the rhino’s injuries were without doubt fatal. The only thing left to do was put the animal out of suffering after three horrific days of pain.
With the rhino population in the Chyulu Hills estimated at only about 18 individuals (and just over 4,000 worldwide), putting down a healthy bull was devastating thing to have to do. The horns were then removed by KWS and the investigation started - we are still following up on leads. If one thing positive came out of this operation it was the efficiently of the follow up and the fast reaction of both KWS and Big Life.
This incident has reinforced how urgent the need for turning the Chyulus into an Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ) is. KWS working closely with Big Life have drawn up a strategy (on the map below) for further outposts and fencing in the area which would qualify it as an IPZ. In total the project will cost $250,000 to complete and would dramatically increase the wildlife security in the area. Furthermore if the project goes ahead there have been 14 black rhino earmarked for translocation to the area – this would result in an almost doubling of the population here. If you would be interested in funding this project expansion directly please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of seven 7.62 x 39mm bullets that poachers hit an Eastern Black Rhino in the Chyulu Hills with. The Rhino was very badly wounded and had to be put down.
Flying with Richard in 5Y-BGJ
A fit, healthy, young adult sitting bone idle can last anywhere from 5 to 7 days without water – ones prospects go south from there pretty quickly when conditions get any trickier. The scorched plains of Mbirikani Group Ranch between two rainy seasons offer something near the ultimate test, so how long do you think a blind man in his 60s walking 15km a day without water or food would survive? This week we got terrifyingly close to finding out.
On Saturday morning the Big Life radio frequency was full of talk about a blind man called Jaluo Orputuai who had gone missing. He had left a party in Mbirikani about 60 hours earlier and was last seen heading south towards home. In the absence of the high tech emergency services of the 1st world it was up to teams from the local community helped by Big Life Rangers, vehicles and communication equipment to go out and find Jaluo. His tracks had him heading south, deeper and deeper into the ranch and away from his home, it was immediately clear that he had become very lost and disoriented.
Once the ground team were on his tracks and had established the area he was heading in, it was decided that 5Y-BGJ would put her anti-poaching duties aside and join the search and rescue mission.
We got airborne with 4 sets of eyes in the plane and canvassed the search area. The hope was that even if we couldn’t spot the man from the air, he would hear us and try to signal us. 90 disheartening minutes later and with the fuel gauge needle flirting with the red zone in was time to refuel and reassess the search area.
At this point John Stevens (a very experience Zimbabwean bushmen and tracker who was staying with Richard) and I decided our services would be better used on the ground, we could get water and equipment to the search party and coordinate Richards flying efforts from there. By now it was mid-day and the sun was at its highest point in the sky, things weren’t looking good.
On the ground tracking was being led by Maasai Morans who were now following Jaluos tracks through the black cotton soil heading north. Disoriented, exhausted, thirsty, hungry and blind, he had remarkably started heading back home towards Mbirikani. 5 hours later and with the sun slipping closer to the horizon there were plans being made to continue the search into the night, our tracker dog Jazz was being harnessed (he works much better when it’s not so hot) and the vision gear was ready to go.
Suddenly out of nowhere a dot appeared on the horizon frantically waving at us. It was like a starting piston had been fired and the entire search party screamed across the plains towards it. The blob become bigger and bigger and then it become two blobs - one of them taking up the shape of a motorbike, this was not our guy. Disheartened, the sprint become an ample, a flat tire no doubt the cause of this false alarm. As we got closer the man’s frantic waving oddly became even more frantic, he was urging us away from him and towards Mbirikani. A quick scan of the horizon in that direction and another blob was spotted, this had to be our guy!
Collapsed in a heap of dirty clothing was Jalou fragile frame, his body was close to giving up and his muscle had become spastic, an indication of 10% + fluid loss - 15% is fatal. Really it was remarkable that he was still going, after over three days in the scorching sun without water his ordeal was nearly over.
After removing his hot sweatshirt and boots and carefully cleaning his mouth and face he was given a wet clothe to suck on (drinking water in such a dehydrated state is often fatal). We then rushed him to the clinic where the staff did an absolutely fantastic job of stabilizing his condition and beginning the procedure of rehydrating him.
Big Life’s operations are rarely confined to our programmes, in the absence of viable alternatives there are a million different rolls that our rangers and staff take to help the local community.
Bush-meat. Hunted using a kadoo.
Kasanga’s wedding - excited women doing a traditional Massai dance which involves lots of jumping.
Kasanga’s wedding - Kasanga after terms had been agreed with his wife’s family (they settled on six cows), that’s his best man in the background.
Kasanga’s wedding - A procession of singing women bring the bride to her new boma (home).
The tracker dog team getting very close to elephants.
A local herdsmen got attacked by a hyena in his home. He was bitten several times on his leg and then got knock to the ground, he managed to get up though and stabbed the hyena twice with his spear. Coincidently the man is called Ole Natangoyo which means ‘the one who speared’ in Maasai.
Leopard at the water hole.
Richard and I flew in for a cross-border meeting with the Big Life Tanzania team.
The Super Cub donated by Tusk for use in the Amboseli eco-system on duty with 4 Big Life Land Cruisers.