Over the many years I’ve been working in the wilds of Botswana, I’ve come to appreciate the fragility of life. This understanding is one of driving forces behind the formation of RCB – a determination to help build rhino populations back to viable levels in Botswana, so they can fulfill their role in the ecosystems that keep our planet healthy.
Despite their size and strength, rhinos are fragile. They are vulnerable to human threats and our ignorance has brought them to the edge of disappearing throughout Africa.
When I first began relocating rhinos in Botswana in 2000, with ecotourism operator Wilderness Safaris, I knew that returning white rhinos to the Okavango Delta was rife with potential failure. The region’s grasslands, shady trees and waterways provide excellent habitat, but they also support predators.
Local lions and hyenas are skilled at hunting large and dangerous prey, such as buffalo, hippopotamus and even young elephants. They would think nothing of snacking on young rhinos.
I remember how excited we were when we saw our first white rhino calves born in the Delta. In those early days, there were only a handful of white rhinos here and we would drive out into the bush to look for them, much as we do to this day. On a monitoring drive on Valentine’s Day in 2005, we spied a female rhino we had named Bogale with a tiny calf. They were at a water hole and the calf was enjoying a refreshing wallow in the clinging mud.
Every rhino calf is a cause for celebration, because it’s a sure sign of success in any species. But with a newly established population, an addition to the population is extra special and we were so thrilled to see him that we laughed out loud. We named him Valentine on the spot.
Over the years, Valentine grew into a fine young man. Eventually, he had to leave his mother’s side as she – being a total star – produced more calves and would no longer tolerate him hanging around. But rhino family bonds run deep and Valentine was more of a mummy’s boy than anyone realised... until yesterday.
Our aerial surveillance operators regularly take to the skies to support the ground patrol teams with locating and monitoring the rhinos. Thanks to our new Aviat Husky aircraft and the talents of our skilled pilot, the aerial monitors can cruise at almost a walking pace over the bush looking for target rhinos and photographing them.
The images enable us to identify each individual rhino from its ear notches, horn shape or any other feature that distinguishes them. They form a vital part of our rhino database.
When the team got back to Maun, we all crowded round the computer, reviewing the new images and identifying the ear notches. We recognised some old rhino friends, delighted in new faces and tried to figure out which rhinos had their heads in bushes when the photos were taken.
But the identity of one mystery rhino eluded us. He was a magnificent bull with torn ears, so we couldn’t see if they were notches or tears. Suddenly, our Operations Manager recalled a photo from 2005 he had backed up only that morning. Was it possible? Could this huge individual be that tiny calf wallowing next to his mother Bogale?!
Yes, it was Valentine. And, boy, has he grown! He’s now a massive, muscular 13-year-old bull just coming into his prime and now living only about 20km from where he was first seen as a tiny calf. Clearly, he wasn’t able to fully cut those apron strings and now lives on the edge of his mother’s territory.
The recruitment of such a magnificent bull rhino to Botswana’s wild population is an incredible success and highlights the importance of RCB’s work. We hope Valentine will go on to breed and support the recovery of his kind from the onslaught of poaching by contributing to the next generation.
His survival is the result of dedicated monitoring and protection, his identification the result of years of careful and accurate observation.
For me personally, I felt a strong sense of connection. I was lucky to see Valentine when he was a vulnerable young calf with no guarantee of survival, and now today he is in his prime and doing well. I could not be more proud.
This story illustrates everything we at RCB are doing every day – and how good it feels to be making a real difference.
Please support our rhino monitors and help us to keep Valentine safe!