Big male rhino in Letsatsing, copyright of Christopher Clark
Back in April this year, Mankwe Gametrackers, Pilanesberg National Park’s main activities provider, began offering a new rhino tracking activity in Letsatsing Game Reserve, a small and pretty reserve that Gametrackers run privately just a stone’s throw from Sun City.
Due to the terrible scourge of rhino poaching in South Africa, the general consensus is that anything that concerns rhinos must be scrutinized and handled very carefully. So it was that the team here at pilanesbergnationalpark.org recently decided to send me to Letsatsing to try out the new activity, get a better understanding of exactly how it works and what it’s about, and subsequently be able to tackle any potential armchair critics from a well-informed perspective borne out of first hand experience.
After a couple of days in Madikwe Game Reserve on other business, the website’s videographer and I arrived in Pilanesberg to be greeted by Mankwe Gametrackers Chief Executive Officer Gavin Reynolds and Operations Manager Frank Bouwer.
Frank has been working in Pilanesberg for more than 30 years and is part of the park’s anti-poaching unit.
Speaking about the birth of the new rhino tracking activity, Frank said: “it basically came down to the following conversation: Do we pretend we don’t have rhinos? Do we sell them to someone else and abdicate our responsibility? Or do we go with it? We decided to go with it.”
All of Letsatsing’s rhinos have been notched (with samples of their DNA and blood taken), while some have also been fitted with a radio frequency identity tag. With the help of a telemetry device, these “chipped” rhinos can be located and tracked at any given time, making the job of monitoring and checking up on them considerably quicker and easier. Frank told us that this is something that was being done on a daily basis long before the activity was made available to the public.
However, Frank pointed out that the cost factor of monitoring the rhinos is “massive”, so the thinking became “let’s take guests with us and the money they pay goes towards securing the animals”.
On a cold and dark Friday afternoon, we met Greg, our guide for the day, and set off for Letsatsing.
As soon as we entered the reserve, Greg turned off the engine and gave us a comprehensive briefing about the activity, from how the chip is implanted (painlessly) in the rhino’s horn and how the telemetry device works, to the general plight of rhinos in South Africa. “We have a responsibility to look after these animals,” he told us earnestly.
We turned on the telemtry device and drove through the reserve, stopping occassionally to check the signal, which sounded like a heartbeat interrupting white noise from a TV. When the signal was strong enough to suggest to Greg that the rhinos were close by somewhere to our left, we got out of the vehicle and continued on foot.