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Experiencing Conservation Firsthand: Tagging Black Rhino in South Africa on Safari

There are only 5,000 black rhino left in Africa, and the drought is now seriously impacting the entire wildlife population of Shamwari Private Game Reserve. Here’s what we were able to do about it on safari.


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When planning the safari of a lifetime, the question of how to do it ethically and sustainably arises. A safari is all about immersing yourself in an environment that native wildlife have inhabited for decades, or even centuries. And so, the question becomes, how can we as global travelers respect and enhance that space?

On safari with African Travel, Inc. at Shamwari Private Game Reserve, in Paterson, South Africa, I took part in an exclusive animal tagging experience to further Shamwari’s conservation initiative.

The animals at Shamwari Private Game Reserve are actually native to this land specifically. However, as a casualty of colonization, the animals left the area and were only reintroduced when Shamwari Private Game Reserve was established in 1990.

Since then, conservation on the reserve has been top of mind. And on a private wildlife reservation, that means maintaining balance; balance between the prey and predators on the reserve, balance between the animals and vegetation, and balance in the number of tourists who come to Shamwari.

The balance can easily be distorted, thanks to natural challenges—namely, the drought in South Africa. However, the balance of predators and prey also factors into the conservation initiative, because it can seriously skew the populations of certain species. For example, on Shamwari, they have reached the maximum number of lions and elephants the reserve can manage. To have any more could dangerously reduce the antelope population. While they can’t manage the birthing cycles of the animals, which tends to happen in mid-summer on the reserve, they can ensure that no outside lions or elephants are introduced. And if a nearby reserve needs an elephant or lion, they could potentially transfer an animal—though only if the circumstances ensure the animal’s safety and happiness.

The black rhino, however, are unable to be relocated and are one of the most challenging animals to reintroduce to the Shamwari environment. Black rhino, slightly smaller than the white rhino, are considered critically endangered. As of early 2020, there were only 5,000 black rhino left in Africa—and 75% of that population was in South Africa. The white rhino population is also of concern, though to a lesser degree; there are 20,000 left in Africa, 90% of which are in South Africa.

The delicate population balance is the reason tagging animals for conservation became an initiative at Shamwari Private Game Reserve. While, yes, that means there must be a certain amount of human interference in the animals’ life, it is done in the least invasive way possible. Of the multitude of animals roaming Shamwari, only about eight are tagged. The primary tagging initiative is for the black rhino, because the conservation team—from afar—attempts to find them every day as an anti-poaching technique.

African Travel, Inc. has been a luxury safari operator in Africa for more than 40 years. They are committed to seeking out the most luxurious accommodations, the most authentic African experiences, and sculpting the most environmentally conscious itineraries. And that’s how I ended up on Shamwari, taking part in this black rhino conservation initiative. There are currently two African Travel, Inc. itineraries that come to Shamwari Private Game Reserve (South Africa’s Natural Wonders and Majestic South Africa). While travelers can, of course, express interest in taking part in a conservation experience like black rhino tagging, there are no guarantees, because the priority is to respect the animals’ habitat and keep them safe.

At Shamwari Private Game Reserve, the conservation initiatives are 100% funded by the tourism revenue of high-end lodges on the private game reserve. Head veterinarian at Shamwari, Dr. Johan Joubert, told me that people often ask how they can best donate their time and money to wildlife preservation in Africa. His response? Come see us, because the revenue at Shamwari funds these conservation projects.

On our rhino-tagging day, we were up at 5:30 a.m.—pretty typical in safari life—for our “surprise” experience. I later learned that Shamwari has to call it a surprise, because wildlife, especially rhino, are unpredictable. While we set out to tag a black rhino on Shamwari (again, this tagging was specifically for anti-poaching purposes), the rhino in question was ultimately not safely positioned for tagging. Nonetheless, already packed in to our safari car with Dr. Joubert, we changed course to tag a water buffalo, a conservation initiative Shamwari had been interested in for a while, but has not yet found the opportunity to follow through on.

The water buffalo—another Big Five animal, like the rhino—are currently facing challenges because of the South African drought. The drought wittles down the crops the buffalo eat, weakening them enough that they can fall prey to lions. While the conservation team and Dr. Joubert had never tagged a water buffalo before, they had been keen on doing so to monitor the herd’s response to the drought and any disease the buffalo may have recently fallen victim to. While Shamwari tries to avoid interfering with the animals, they will step in if disease is spreading through the buffalo herd, which is why tagging one buffalo to track the herd was appealing for the veterinary team.

We pulled up to the buffalo herd, at which point Dr. Joubert identified a female buffalo—better for tracking because she is more likely to stay with her herd—and took aim with his tranquilizer gun. He swiftly (and painlessly), shot her with just enough tranquilizer to slow her movements, after a few minutes causing her to lie down and effectively fall asleep. Remarkably, her herd, which had backed off at first signs of a tranquilizer gun, made no attempts to leave her and run. They kept their distance, but watched as we approached the female buffalo, almost as if they were overseeing our work.

Once the buffalo was down, the team snapped into action, working as quickly as possible to ensure the buffalo didn’t have to be out of sorts any longer than necessary. The reserve is adamant about not putting tracking collars on their animals, even if it’s for the sake of conservation, which is why Dr. Joubert made a superficial incision in the buffalo to insert the tracking device, and then stitched the buffalo up with great care and applied antiseptic to the area.

We all piled back into the safari vehicle, Dr. Joubert administered the drug to wake our buffalo friend—he makes sure to give the lowest possible drug dosage needed to get the job done—and we watched from 20 feet away as she stirred. Her herd, still overseeing this process from a short distance, approached cautiously as the buffalo climbed back to her feet. The scene unfolded: the buffalo walking back to her herd, and those closest to her gingerly sniffing her neck, trying to make sense of the foreign occurrence. Eventually, the herd determined that their girl was indeed, just fine, at which point they continued on their way, and we went on ours.


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