Close encounters on foot with rhino in the Pongola Game Reserve.
Close encounters on foot with rhino in the Pongola Game Reserve.

The white rhino bull was agitated, snorting and swaying his head in annoyance at a tractor that had just trundled by.

For my part, I was tempted to leg it as the rhino was barely 15m ahead on a dirt road and we were on foot tracking wild rhinos at the Pongola Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal. We had left the protective embrace of a Land Cruiser just minutes before. But our guide Cosmos Goba remained impassive.

“He doesn’t like the sound of the vehicles and he sometimes chases them,” he explained as the rhino stomped into the bush, where he proceeded to thrash around like a cranky child. At least there was bush for the animal to melt into. The last time my wife and I had tracked rhinos here, in November 2015, the reserve was in the scorching grip of an El Nino-triggered drought.

The contrast was stark. The reserve then was a parched brown with hardly a blade of grass, the deceptive hue of hardy acacia trees, the only green to be seen.  It is now a lush collage of colliding shades of emerald with waist-high grass and thick foliage.

Minutes after our first rhino encounter, we came across an adult cow and two young adult bulls. They were eating grass as we cautiously approached, until we were within 20m of them. Rhinos can barely see 2m in front of them, but they soon sniffed out our presence, staring our way and ambling to within 15m.The animals, while wild, seemed habituated to humans. It is easy to see why rhinos are easy to poach.

Still, there was no room for complacency. Megafauna can become a mega threat at the drop of a hat: Pongola also has elephants, buffalo and leopard.

On our previous visit, a guide who we had been on a boat with on the dam was charged by a bull while trying to fetch our vehicle, which was surrounded by several rhinos. To our astonishment he stood his ground, clapping his hands maniacally until the animal veered off.  He was carrying a bolt-action .375 calibre rifle commonly used in Big Five country, but he has never needed to use it there.

After we moved on, we came across a bush pig — a rare day-time sighting — and graceful hornbills flitting through the trees. Circling back, we saw two adult rhinos with a calf near the vehicle. They were skittish and thundered off.

The rhinos of Pongola, a private reserve proclaimed in the 1890s, are part of a wider success story. A survey conducted for the Private Rhino Owners Association found that at the end of 2017 almost 7,000 white rhinos were in private hands in SA out of a national herd estimated at 15,200, about 46% of the total. About 600 black rhinos are privately owned. In 1987, only 813 South African rhinos were privately owned.

Populations in national and provincial parks have by contrast been in decline, reversing decades of robust growth. In 2010, the number of white rhinos in SA was estimated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature at 18,800, with more than 14,000 roaming state land and about 4,000 on private farms.

The state number has since almost halved because of drought and poaching, while the private figure has almost doubled, highlighting the role the often maligned private sector can play in conservation. Poaching occurs on private reserves too, but it is clearly a far more serious problem on state land.

Ecosystems can recover from drought; recovering from the loss of megafauna is a different story. Scientists use the term “keystone species” to describe the role played by elephants, rhinos, hippo and the like in the environments they inhabit — megafauna have mega impacts.

Like a keystone in an arch, if they are removed, the system collapses. Private reserves and rhino owners deserve credit for their role in preserving this keystone and replacing it in areas where it was previously removed. And with the right incentives — perhaps loosening restrictions on trade in rhino horn, which can be harvested, and sensible approaches to the land reform issue — this positive process can be maintained.

In the meantime, go for a walk in the bush in search of rhinos. You won’t be disappointed.

Rhino walks in Pongola are a bargain at R475 per person. Check the Pongola Game Reserve website for accommodation rates which are also quite reasonable. The author paid his own way