By late 2001 (at the time that this story took place) rhinos had been extinct in the wild in Botswana for a decade. Nick Galpine reminisces about our first translocation of these charismatic animals...
After several false alarms, the day had finally come – the white rhinos that had spent the last few weeks in the specially constructed boma to the north of Mombo would be released at last. That morning, in order to keep up a pretence of normality (rhinos rather like their routines) we heaved bales of teff and lucerne into the pens, and went through the ritual of trying to persuade each rhino to enter a different pen, so that we could clean the one they had just vacated.
This may sound easy, but trying to choreograph a routine involving four very large and occasionally grumpy ballerinas could be a challenge. Fortunately, we were old hands at it by then.
Those of us who had spent time with the rhinos, both at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Paje, and now here on Chief’s Island, found that we had mixed emotions about the release. Of course, this was the whole point of all the work that Wilderness Safaris and the Botswana Government had done, but we found that we felt rather like parents whose children were about to fly the nest.
We’d been told to expect VIP guests (although who, we wondered, could be more important than our charges?). Nevertheless, we were thrilled when the then Vice-President of Botswana, Ian Khama, appeared at the head of the delegation. Could the rhinos sense that their long journey from Gaborone was about to reach its conclusion? Did they appreciate the significance of this historic event (rhinos by this point in late 2001 had been extinct in the wild in Botswana for a decade)?
Or were they just keen to get their lips round some of the fresh green floodplain grass that was growing tantalisingly just out of reach, beyond the boma gate?
As we’d visualised the release (and this is not the sort of thing you can rehearse), we would ask the Vice President to say a few words, and then we’d slide open the gates. We’d failed to take into account the Vice President’s fully-justified reputation as a man of action – as head of the Botswana Defence Force, he’d successfully taken the fight to the poachers who had caused the rhinos’ demise.
He was not to be deterred from opening the first gate himself. Apparently unaware of the status of their liberator, the two female white rhinos came thundering out of their pen – and almost ran him over in their eagerness to join the Moremi ecosystem. In the process, they planted the first rhino footprints seen in the Okavango in at least ten years.
"This may sound easy, but trying to choreograph a routine involving four very large and occasionally grumpy ballerinas could be a challenge. Fortunately, we were old hands at it by then."
Fortunately, the Vice President’s military training came to his rescue, and displaying an agility that more portly African politicians might lack, he sprang up the outside of the stockade to safety. From our rather safer vantage point on the viewing platform, we heaved two sighs of relief: one because the release had gone off without a hitch; and a second one because this new wildlife beginning had not resulted in an unwelcome new political beginning for Botswana.
Written by Nick Galpine