Field trip report: February 2011

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, spring 2011. Author: Lucy Boddam-Whetham)

My job, in a nutshell, is to know the field programmes inside and out so that I can liaise with field staff on needs and challenges, successfully apply to grant-making organisations and, of course, report fully on how grants have been used. This is done from our office in London with my (usually!) fast internet connection, armed with the fundraiser’s dictionary of ‘objectives’, ‘indicators of success’, ‘outputs’ and such like. When fighting endless deadlines, it’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of the reality of rhino conservation in the field and the challenges faced by the field staff. I was soon to see the realities for myself.

My first stop was the Mbirikani Group Ranch adjacent to the Chyulu Hills National Park to learn about the Maasailand Preservation Trust (MPT)’s Game scout and rhino programme. I have worked very closely with MPT throughout my time at SRI, and I thought I knew it really well, but I was amazed how useful it was to see the programme for myself and to spend time with key field staff. It was great to see the new offices that Chester Zoo helped to pay for, and the shiny new patrol vehicle for which SRI fundraised.

The senior team at MPT, with Fred Njagi, Administrator, in the checked shirt, second from right.

Credit: Save the Rhino International

I quickly saw how busy things are. I spent five days with the legendary Richard Bonham, boss of MPT, and his dedicated Project Manager Fred Njagi. Throughout the week, there were constant interruptions from the phone with reports of human-wildlife conflict, or from people turning up at the offices who had walked for miles asking Richard for a scholarship or for a job. It’s not easy to deal with all of these requests and get done everything you had set out to do.

I was also lucky enough to accompany the game scouts on a rhino monitoring patrol, which gave me a good understanding of the challenges they face. Living in isolated, basic conditions, patrolling and monitoring can be quite tedious and requires strong motivation. Often these men are putting their lives on the line to protect rhinos and other wildlife. We soon came upon fresh tracks, dung and a dust bath of one of the elusive black rhino. The game scouts told me how they had recently come across a large snare which was set on a frequented rhino trail. Luckily, the scouts had found it first and the bloodhounds were brought in, a scent picked up and the perpetrator tracked down and arrested. It was sobering to know this was a direct attempt at the rhinos. Another recent poaching attempt saw poisoned pineapples laid down for the rhinos but again, thankfully, due to the informer network, arrests were made before any rhinos were harmed.

While there I took the opportunity to camp out overnight by the waterhole, which is being supplied by the recently completed borehole. With night-vision equipment ready, I was hopeful of seeing my first wild black rhino. The only visitor was a buffalo noisily lapping up the water. He suddenly sensed we were there and started stomping about in protest! Alas, the rhinos were not thirsty that night.

I was sad to leave Chyulu Hills but, safe in the knowledge that key grant reports had been worked on and future developments and funding needs had been discussed, I headed off to the Laikipia District to witness the work of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum (LWF) and visit a few of the area’s key wildlife conservancies. I left Chyulus thinking that the key to successful conservation is the full backing and involvement of the local people and was therefore even keener to see LWF’s community work.