It’s good to be reminded that you’re not the centre of the universe. Scott and I recently made a visit to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, west of Kampala on the way to Murchison Falls. There, the dry grass catching at our legs and the sun bearing down on our heads, I felt small and unimportant, but in a good way. Standing just metres from their hulking, heavy bodies, I was surprised at how easily I understood that these enormous, sleeping creatures were more important than I was to the staff at the sanctuary. Certainly, they are more important to the world at large.
We signed a waiver upon entering the park indemnifying the staff at the sanctuary should anything go wrong. Yes, we were at a rhino sanctuary, but it was a sanctuary rather than a zoo. The rhinos were wild, they weren’t in captivity. Humans operated on their periphery only, studying them but leaving them to live in peace. I started to understand the waiver we had signed:
I understand and accept that Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary take no responsibility whatsoever for my accidental death or any injury or loss that I may suffer caused by the act of any animal or by any act of omission of any staff at any time.
I had balked at the ‘act of omission’ bit at the front gate. But standing just metres away from the rhinos, listening to the rangers list their habits and their histories, I got the feeling that, should the rhinos charge us, the rangers might be a bit reluctant to shoot them. Failing to fire that bullet might just be that act of omission we were indemnifying them against.
Certainly, in terms of dollars, these beasts were more valuable. And we were told of their importance to the biodiversity of Uganda. But more than that, the staff adored them. At any given time, day and night, two rangers keep watch over each group of rhinos. They take notes about where they move, when they sleep, how much they eat. And while they compile this comprehensive behavioural data, the rangers can’t help but develop a personal and intimate knowledge of each of their charges.
As for the rhinos, they were so familiar with the rangers that they recognised their voices. Scott and I had to keep our voices down so that, as strangers, we would not startle them. They responded when the rangers called out their names, twitching their cupped ears and lifting their sleepy, creased heads. Though we were given instructions on what to do if the rhinos charged (‘Move near a tree and be ready to climb!’), the truth is that these gentle vegetarian giants had no interest in the audience the rangers had brought.
And they were beautiful. We saw Bella with her nine-month-old calf, already pregnant again. I tracked the deep lines beneath her eyes; she looked tired and heavy. The young male Hassani, yet to mate and form a family, was hanging out beside them in the shade, dozing in the heat. He had his front leg tucked beneath his chin like our old family dog Gracie used to. Their size was intimidating, certainly, but when they humphed and stirred, their weight rolling from side to side, we pointed and squealed like excited school kids at the zoo.
The day we were there, the sanctuary had received a tip that poachers were planning to enter the park disguised as clients to make an attack on the rhinos. All staff had been contacted and instructed to come into work. Vehicles were being searched upon entry. Locals visiting relatives who lived inside the sanctuary grounds were being detained at the gate. The staff joked across their walkie talkies about getting paid extra, but there were no complaints about being called in on their day off.
In the seventies, rhinos were poached to extinction in Uganda. During Idi Amin’s reign, the famous Murchison Falls National Park up the road from the sanctuary saw poachers and troops wipe out almost all of its wildlife, including the valuable rhinoceros. The white rhinos at the sanctuary are not only a rebirth for white rhinos in Uganda, but may just represent civil stability and economic development. The park could not exist without the long-term support of zoos and animal sanctuaries across the world, nor without a consistent flow of tourists through their gates. In October last year, Uganda saw the birth of its first rhino in over 28 years.
Though officially the white rhino numbers are so low that there are doubts it can survive extinction, you would never guess it from being at the sanctuary. The staff was welcoming, serious about the rhinos but eager to share what they knew. Our ranger listed statistics like a schoolboy rattling off his 12 times table: 1.8 metres tall, 3000 kilos heavy, 16 months in gestation, land speed of 40 kph, life expectancy of 45 years. But the trait I noticed most was the sense of pride they had in the work they were doing. They knew how important the rhinos were, and knew how important their job was to protect them. Though I didn’t seriously doubt they would protect me, it seemed (and in the cold light of day, I have to agree) that this was more important than their job of protecting us.