How do horses help rhino conservation?

How do horses help rhino conservation efforts?

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, Autumn 2013. Author: Dennis Kelly, Section Ranger, Nqumeni Outpost, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park)

My wife Bronwen and I had listened to the reverberating call of a patrolling lion since earlier that evening. Later that night, when I heard a commotion coming from the far end of the Nqumeni Outpost, I knew it could only be one thing…

I rushed across and found Corporal Simon Nyawo and the Horse Groom at the stables talking excitedly. According to them, a lioness had tried to get into the stable area but had been thwarted by the electric fence that separates the horses from the surrounding bush. Just three months earlier, a horse had been killed and eaten by lions when it wandered off too far in search of food. I was relieved that we had not lost another. Nqumeni Section, which is one of five management sections in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP), has five horses. They are used during patrols, both for law enforcement and rhino monitoring.

Horses have been used in Zululand for a very long time and – as in many other instances around the world – are the unsung heroes of many proud stories in South Africa. Horses featured heavily in both the Anglo-Zulu War and South African Wars, and subsequently became an integral part of early conservation efforts in Zululand. Nick Steele, who was based at the very remote Gome Outpost in the 1960s, relied on horses to patrol the vast area without roads under his control. He also used horses to travel to and from Mpila, the iMfolozi logistical base where Dr Ian Player was stationed.

Perhaps the horses’ most famous conservation role was during Operation Rhino, when white rhino – whose numbers in Hluhluwe and Umfolozi had been growing well since proclamation in 1897 – were captured to repopulate areas from which they had long since disappeared. Rangers mounted on horses followed darted rhino and these small mounted units became an integral part of a very successful operation that saved Africa’s Southern white ehino population. Horses were later used in pioneering the mass capture of antelope in HiP, where extremely skilled horsemen including Jan Oelofse and Nick Steele chased animals such as zebra and wildebeest into capture bomas. The horses’ role in these types of operation has now been taken over by the helicopter.

Generally, people walking through the bush are fairly conspicuous to wildlife. We may think that we are following all the rules by remaining as neutral as possible and taking note of the wind direction, but we still stick out like sore thumbs. Horses blend in and animals respond differently when a person is on horseback; our outline is broken up and our scent masked by the horses. Game such as buffalo and white rhino can be approached without them so much as lifting their heads (although there are exceptions). Some black rhino can be very intolerant and several patrols have returned in tatters after bumping into a grumpy black rhino, with the rider only just managing to hold on as the horse beelines back to the outpost. The mere smell of lions is enough to stop an experienced bush horse in its tracks and no amount of pulling and tugging will get it to continue, with the only option being a large detour around the suspicious patch of bushes. This can be hugely frustrating, but why question an animal with better senses than our own? I am sure many incidents have been avoided due to a ‘stubborn’ horse that has sensed something into which we would have otherwise blundered.

 The horses’ role in the fight against rhino poaching is perhaps understated compared to the big gun fights and helicopter reactions which are now common place. But for those who rely on these loyal, unassuming animals, the horse will always be an invaluable tool in African conservation.

Recent grants

We sent 3,250 euros sent from a 7,500 euro grant from Foundation friends Safaripark Beekse Bergen and Dierenrijk for maintaining the stables, securing the electrical fence, buying supplementary feed, vaccinations and medical supplies and purchasing new riding tack. USFWS RTCF awarded $21,534 for ongoing aerial surveillance of the Park (a new Bathawk has just been delivered to replace the Bantam microlight that crashed in January). Colchester Zoo’s Action for the Wild has given £4,930 for digital & video cameras, GPS, batteries, pepper sprays, handcuffs, Cybertrackers and firearm cleaning material. And Save the Rhino has awarded $2,430 from our core funds for metal detector, rifle mount, Glock tactical light fitting, drill for fence maintenance and toolbox.