Allure of the bush: Thanda Safari, a luxury game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, offers guests the opportunity to participate in its rhino-tracking programme. Picture: THANDA SAFARI WEBSITE
Allure of the bush: Thanda Safari, a luxury game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, offers guests the opportunity to participate in its rhino-tracking programme. Picture: THANDA SAFARI WEBSITE

A short-tailed Bateleur eagle is balancing on the wind currents while two black rhino rush past the Umbrella Acacia under which Truman Ndlovu is briefing us.

On the full moon in July, two poachers were killed by field rangers nearby in the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park’s Nqolothi section.

Another three poachers who had escaped were arrested by police soon after in a combined operation with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, a governmental group responsible for maintaining wildlife conservation areas in KwaZulu-Natal.

The previous weekend, six rhinos were killed and dehorned in the park’s Mbuzane area.

For Ndlovu, head of security for Thanda Safari and former head ranger, their multi-pronged response to conserving the rhino and other wildlife population is paying dividends. "Our rangers are dedicated day and night to protecting our wildlife", he says, while we watch how the rhino being chased had a lucky break when the chaser was distracted by our presence.

Rhinos also kill one another in their territory challenges, Ndlovu tells us, and, later, points out the rhino midden (dung heap) where the aggressor has dragged his feet to spread his excrement to assert territorial rights.

The previous night, before we enjoyed an outstanding bush dinner in a dried river bed, a Zulu dance troupe from the local community performed for the luxury lodge’s guests. It was especially evocative when their foot stomping seemed to produce flare-ups and sparks from the two fires.

Before dinner one of the rangers used an ultraviolet light to show us the scorpions on the nearby tree.

"We’ve added over R1.5m to our salaries bill to help protect the rhinos", says Ndlovu, adding that their conservation efforts have included clipping the horn just above the base like one would a toenail, a procedure that involves great cost and unwelcome handling of the animal, and is far from ideal.

Many game lodges now ask safari guests not to upload rhino photos to their social media streams, but conservationist and Thanda Safari GM Barry James says this is a pointless exercise as the poachers are extremely skilled and well-resourced and don’t need to rely on social media posts to find rhino. For James, the issue of rhino poaching is similar to the illicit sale of alcohol during the prohibition era and is controlled by the same mafia networks involved in drugs and human trafficking.

Thanda Safari offers guests the opportunity to participate in its rhino-tracking programme at an additional cost, adding revenue to help offset the costs while educating the public in the process. The thrill of being on foot in the bush aside, the opportunity to learn from people at the coalface of rhino conservation is invaluable.

I never before thought of the foot-soldier poachers as victims in this sad situation, but a truth of the poaching problem is that communities are impoverished and the promise of money is hard to resist. Sadder still is that while the greatest risk is taken by people on the ground, the finder’s fee is a tiny fraction of the amounts the kingpin earns.

As a member of The Leading Hotels of the World and a multiple world travel awards winner, Thanda is a Big Five reserve

"Our strategy is to increase the risks while reducing the rewards," James says.

The black rhino is temperamental and more keen to protect its turf than the white, or wide-lipped, rhino. Despite our close encounter earlier and successfully following the spoor that tracker Winneth Khumalo reads, we haven’t seen the rhino again.

A herd of 15 wildebeest is nearby and we follow the spoor of hunting lions, walking in single file, silently through the savannah thicket.

Towards the waterhole, the numbers of tracks increase so much, it is hard to tell one from the other. Well, hard for me. Khumalo points out the raised sides around the tracks and says that they are recently made, before wind and friction from other animals produces a more muted track.

A brown-headed chakra bird is calling from the adjacent tree and Khumalo shows us a thick, fluid track. "Look at the direction of the broken leaves," he says, suggesting that a large python has slithered down the tree and towards the water.

Counterinsurgency training is something many South African men in their late 40s and older will remember and Ndlovu says that they also use the tracking experience to find and follow the poachers.

As a member of The Leading Hotels of the World and a multiple world travel awards winner, Thanda is a Big Five reserve with exclusive use of the 14,000ha, which includes land leased from King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu.

Thanda’s owners, Swedes Dan and Christin Olofsson, believe in community-based natural resource management and welcome guest speakers and enrichment programmes.

Although accommodation provides for every luxury imaginable, and it has an award-wining spa and other facilities expected from high-end lodges, perhaps the stand-out reason to visit Thanda Safari is to witness the success of community collaboration both in terms of uplifting communities and conserving tragically, ever-shrinking natural resources. And, after walking in the bush with Ndlovu and Khumalo as your guides, you might have a better story to tell than your friends who went to Mauritius.

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