Conserving Endangered Rhinos in South Africa

Expedition Briefing

 

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The Research

Rhino populations are in crisis due to the high value of rhino horn combined with widespread poaching. In the past decade, there has been an exponential increase in poaching of both white rhinos and black rhinos in South Africa (Pernetta, 2014), which contains 74% of the world’s remaining rhino population. Between 2010 and 2015 4,843 rhinos have been poached in South Africa, with 1,175 deaths in 2015 alone. This amounts to an average of three individuals per day (Pernetta, 2014). Even with a reduction in the losses to poaching since 2014, it is estimated at the current rates of poaching rhinos in South Africa may be extinct within the next 10–20 years. Poaching is predominantly driven by illegal trade of rhino horn in South East Asia; on the black markets of Southeast Asia rhino horn is reported to be worth more than gold (Milliken & Shaw, 2012).

This situation requires immediate action not only to reduce the levels of poaching but also to investigate 1) the impacts of anti- poaching management land and animal management (such as horn trimming rhinos) on the animals themselves and to 2) determine the impacts of the loss of this megaherbivore on ecosystems to help quantify their functional role and alternative economic value for conservation initiatives.

The goal of the project is to provide information that will help to conserve and manage rhinos in South Africa. We share information with rhino owners on the behavioral and welfare implications of horn trimming and provide supporting evidence on land management practices that may help to identify and reduce poaching risk. In addition we will demonstrate how rhinos support biodiversity and ecosystem functions, and in so doing, provide further evidence of their inherent value in ecosystem support.

Research Aims

The research has the following objectives and will address these research questions:

  1. To evaluate the locations and timing of white rhinos using different parts of the landscape in the game reserve and to determine what might drive those “decisions” in the rhinos.
  2. To investigate white rhino habitat use and spatial behaviors, as well as changes in vigilance and social interactions pre and post horn trimming (or dehorning).
  3. To investigate the biodiversity-supporting role of white rhinos, including assessing which birds and herbivorous ungulates benefit from their associations with the rhinos via feeding interactions in order to evaluate the potential impact of localized loss of this megaherbivore on avian communities.
  4. To identify which deterrents might be deployed to prevent rhinos from using areas of high risk (with respect to poaching) within the reserve.
  5. To determine what is the most effective, accurate and cost- effective approach for locating poachers following incursions into private game reserves.
  6. To determine the impact of direct and indirect experience on rhino conservation on an individual’s knowledge, opinion and action towards rhino conservation.

How You Will Help

Research tasks volunteers will be involved with:

  • Finding and recording locations of individual rhinos every day for group composition, spatial distribution and habitat use assessment.
  • Behavioral observations of rhinos on foot and from vehicles; Observe and record their behavior over set periods to time to determine habitat use, foraging activity, interactions between individuals of different ages and genders, and determine the extent of behavior to indicate vigilance in relation to perceived threats.
  • Recording foraging signs of rhinos and assessing foraging behavior from visual, observational and vegetation surveys.
  • Bird and mammal transects and point counts. Determine rhino species associations by surveying birds and mammals to assess their species richness and populations in areas where rhinos are and are not present.
  • Conduction of vegetation surveys: When the animals move off of foraging sites, record the vegetation in the area to assess habitat use
  • Walkover surveys for habitat mapping.
  • Behavioral analysis of rhinos at inaccessible sites from camera trap videos.
  • Helping set up deterrent experiments and monitoring rhino responses to those deterrents.
  • Assisting with simulated poacher incursions, both acting as poachers, and assisting in on-foot and drone-based surveys.

Life in the Field

You’ll have one or two days of training in field and survey techniques, behavioral methods, use of GPS and field equipment, and identification of mammals and birds. Other educational opportunities will happen throughout the expedition, covering topics such as the history of the project; health and safety on site and during fieldwork; rhino ecology and conservation; rhino conservation and management in South Africa; methodological theory and practice; bird and mammal identification with qualified staff; game reserve management; research methodology; basic field skills, distance estimation, use of GPS, species identification, and more.

ITINERARY

Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.

Project activities will also vary seasonally. Below is an outline of what is likely to happen on each team, but the exact schedule will depend on the project’s current needs and will be set at the start of each expedition.

  • All Teams: Rhino monitoring, behavioral studies, camera trapping, rhino hotspot mapping
  • Rainy Season (Dec.–Mar.: Weather Dependent): Habitat mapping and vegetation assessment foraging studies, bird and mammal associations
  • Dry Season (May–July): Possible assistance with horn trimming
  • When Possible: Local school visit
TYPICAL ITINERARY
  • Day 1: Meet and travel to field site, introduction and orientation drive, downtime in the evening.
  • Day 2: Orientation, field training in methodology, identification of mammals/birds, group activities, downtime in the evening
  • Days 3–7: Rhino monitoring, behavioral observations, habitat mapping/surveys, biodiversity assessments.
  • Day 8: Recreational day with an excursion to Pilanesberg National Park in the morning or afternoon and evening and other team activities (park entry fees are covered; meals and snacks are at your own expense).
  • Days 9–10: Rhino monitoring, behavioral observations, habitat mapping/surveys, biodiversity assessments.
  • Day 11: Data collation, project summary, and sundowner evening at field site.
  • Day 12: A transfer company will pick up the team at 12:00 p.m. and take you to the airport for departure.
RECREATIONAL DAY

For safety reasons, the team will spend the recreational day as a group. You will have the option to stay at the accommodations to rest, but you CANNOT leave camp or go off on your own if you choose this option. Following is a typical schedule for the recreational day (schedule may change for reasons beyond our control.

Accommodations and Food

During the expedition, your team will be based at campsite in the heart of a private wildlife reserve at a scenic spot overlooking a dammed lake.

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.

SLEEPING

There are three different accommodations at the reserve. You may sleep in a two-room brick house, a wooden cabin, or a walk-in safari tent, depending on the number of team members and the gender makeup of the team. The house sleeps up to eight people in two separate bedrooms. There are three tents that sleep two to four people and have an en suite bathroom with flush toilet, sink, and shower. The two wooden cabins have an en suite bathroom, and can accommodate up to four volunteers, but are generally kept to two when possible. Most people will share a sleeping area with one or two others of the same gender. Although not guaranteed, it may be possible to accommodate couples or single room requests, depending on group size, on a first-come, first-served basis—please inform Earthwatch if you would like to request either of these options. Beds, pillows, duvets, and sheets are provided, but you must bring your own warm sleeping bag during the winter months (June, July, and August). Sleeping bags are not necessary for teams during the South African summer (October–January teams). A camp attendant will sweep up and clean bathroom facilities.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.

BATHROOMS

Bathroom facilities include hot showers and flush toilets. Hot water is supplied by a wood-fired or gas boiler.

ELECTRICITY

The electricity at the site is generated by solar power. It is 220/230 volts AC, 50 Hz. Most plugs are Type M (three round pins) but some plugs with two smaller pins are also found on appliances. U.S.-made appliances may need a transformer. The campsite has electrical outlets, so cameras, cell phones, iPods, etc. may be charged during the day. Please do not bring unnecessary electrical equipment, as the system at the campsite is easily overloaded and charging capabilities will be limited. This will help preserve energy for other camp necessities. Some equipment (e.g., rechargeable batteries) can be charged at the Wildlife Reserve with the permission of Operations Manager Lynne MacTavish. We advise, though, that you make sure to bring all batteries required for camera equipment, etc. as it can be very hard to find them locally. Please also bring the correct adaptors for South African plugs.

PERSONAL COMMUNICATIONS

The cellphone reception at the camp has greatly improved, so volunteers can use smartphones to gain access to the Internet. Please ensure that you register for international roaming in your own country. SIM cards may be purchased at the Johannesburg airport upon arrival. MTN service provider has the strongest reception in our area. The Internet connection is very slow, so it is impossible to Skype at the reserve. On the recreational day, you can use the Internet at Kwa Maritane Lodge for about R50 (US$5.40). You can’t connect your own computer to the Internet at camp; in the case of an emergency, Lynne will bring her laptop with Internet connection to the camp. It may be possible for project staff to download photos onto a computer if you bring appropriate cables, etc. If you’d like a copy of photos taken during the expedition, we suggest you bring a memory stick.

DISTANCE TO THE FIELD SITE

The reserve is about a 15-minute drive from Pilanesberg National Park’s entrance and about 40 minutes from Kgaswane Mountain Reserve. The team will be transported around the Wildlife Reserve in open-topped vehicles, but closed vehicles will be used at all other sites and on public roads. There are no services in walking distance. The nearest town is Mogwase, a 15-minute drive from camp.

FOOD AND WATER

A local chef will prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Lunch and dinner will be a mix of international and local cuisine, including traditional South African meals such as poitjiekos (game stews) and braais (barbeques), using free-range game from the game reserve. You don’t need to assist in shopping, food preparation, or clean up, unless you want to. In the occasional event that the team wishes to bring a picnic or braai on a day trip, you may be asked to help prepare your own lunch.

Most meals will be eaten communally on site in the eating area. When we are working in the Pilanesberg National Park, a picnic dinner will be eaten at one of the game-viewing hides in the park.

Lynne runs an on-site shop that sells snacks, drinks, postcards, and project merchandise, such as T-shirts and hats. To make purchases at the shop, place your order in the order book provided, and Lynne will bring the requested items that evening or the following day. Your shop bill will be calculated at the end of your stay. Lynne takes Great Britain Pounds, U.S. Dollars, and South African Rand; shop accounts may not be paid by traveler’s checks or credit cards.

Alcohol consumption is not permitted by minors or on teen teams regardless of local law. It is permitted on adult teams, and available for purchase at the camp.

The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

  • Breakfast: Cereal, fruit, toast/bread, jam, tea, coffee, occasionally hot breakfast
  • Lunch: Salad, quiche, soups, bread rolls
  • Dinner: Braais, stews, pasta, potatoes, vegetables, vegetarian options, dessert
  • Snacks: Fruit, biscuits, crisps (potato chips); chocolate, etc. may be purchased from the on-site shop at your own expense
  • Beverages: Clean drinking water available on site
SPECIAL DIETARY REQUIREMENTS

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms.

We can accommodate vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, nut free and lactose free diets but very specialized diet accommodation is not guaranteed and can be very difficult due to availability of food, location of field sites, and other local conditions. You have special dietary needs; it is recommended that you bring supplemental snacks.

Project Conditions

GENERAL CONDITIONS

For weather and region-specific information, please visit Wunderground.com and search for your project location.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is different from your own.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • See clearly (with or without corrective lenses) to a distance of 500 meters (1,640 feet), and see close up to read research instruments. We may go out in the evening or for a night drive, so the ability to see in low light is also a must.
  • Enjoy being outdoors all day in all types of weather, often exposed to the sun for long periods of time or highly variable weather conditions, which may include large temperature differences between night and day and sudden storms or drops in temperature
  • Enjoy being outdoors in the potential presence of wild, dangerous animals, including snakes and insects.
  • Walk over rough, uneven terrain with areas of dense, thorny vegetation, animal holes that can be hard to spot, or rocky and steep slopes for up to five kilometers (3.0 miles) per day and generally up to three hours per day an average rate of one kilometer (0.6 miles) in 15 minutes, with minimal fatigue.
  • Tolerate long periods of time in the field; days can be long.
  • Without assistance, climb in and out of project vehicles, which may include vans, trucks with high beds, and open- topped safari vehicles.
  • Sit or ride in project vehicles with seat belt fastened and in close proximity to other team members while traveling over rough and bumpy roads or have to sit still during behavioral observations for up to approximately five hours per day. Although the team will take regular breaks, in some research areas you will not be permitted to get out of the vehicle and walk around due to the presence of dangerous animals.
  • Get low enough to access and collect samples and identify plants on the ground and in the brush and to access or set up camera traps.
  • Keep as quiet and still as possible while observing animals and working in the bush.
  • Tolerate some smoke in the air if participating in the controlled-burn monitoring. Those who choose to participate will be placed in areas unlikely to be affected by smoke—but winds can change and it is impossible to guarantee a smoke-free zone (only applicable to May–August teams).
  • Tolerate not having a reliable source of electricity throughout the night for the length of the project.

Health and Safety

EMERGENCIES IN THE FIELD

Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.

IMMUNIZATIONS & TRAVEL VACCINATIONS

Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or region where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions

Transportation

Hazards include fast and reckless drivers, livestock and wildlife in the road, rain, poor lighting, banditry, tire punctures due to thorny brush, and vehicle breakdowns. Traffic moves on the left side of the road. South African road conditions are considered good, particularly in urban areas; however, roads at the study sites can be poor: dirt, gravel, or corrugated and very bumpy and either dusty or muddy and slippery depending on weather conditions. Wear seat belts whenever they are available and remain seated when the vehicle is in motion. Speeds will be kept at 50-km/ hr. (30 mph) or below, and will usually be around 30 km/hr. (20 mph). Only authorized, insured, experienced staff will drive. Volunteers are not permitted to drive. We will avoid night transportation (some night drives are part of the research).

Walking/Hiking/Climbing

Terrain can be rocky, steep, and uneven with thick vegetation, especially in the wet season. There may be animal holes in the ground, covered by grasses and hard to spot. Some areas have dense, thorny acacia scrub. There is a possibility of sprains, bruises, and strains when walking. Walk carefully and attentively, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. We will walk on tracks and paths where possible. Appropriate clothing and footwear (e.g., long trousers, hat, socks, and well-broken-in hiking boots with ankle support) are required for fieldwork. Closed-toe shoes must be worn at night.

Animals at Accommodations

Several types of snakes are present in the reserve, including venomous snakes.

Two domesticated cats live at the Wildlife Reserve. Those with allergies should note this on their participation forms and bring medication as appropriate.

Perimeter Fence

The reserve perimeter fence is electrified because of wildlife. Do not touch this fence to avoid shock.

Biting insects (ticks, mosquitoes, scorpions, flies and wasps) and vector-borne diseases

Trypanosomiasis, leishmaniasis, chikungunya, tick bite fever, dengue, and West Nile virus are present in this region. Participants are advised to use insect repellent (20–30% DEET) and wear neutral-colored field attire with long sleeves and long pants tucked into socks. Participants with potential for allergic reactions to insect bites should bring appropriate medications (antihistamines, at least two Epi-Pens as necessary). Volunteers will be informed about where ticks may be more prevalent in the field and how to avoid them. Participants and staff will be reminded to thoroughly check their skin and clothes for ticks daily. If a tick is found, participants will be instructed how to remove it properly (it will be removed using fine-point tweezers, grasping the tick as close to its mouth as possible, slowly pull the tick straight out. The area will be immediately washed with soapy water). Malaria is not present at the research site; however, it is found elsewhere in the country, including chloroquine-resistant malaria.

Plants

Some plants may be poisonous if eaten or if they come into close contact with open wounds. Several plants, such as acacias, have large thorns that can cause injury. Staff will help you identify harmful plants. Certain plants and pollen may cause allergic reactions (e.g., hay fever) in some volunteers. Those with allergies should bring and carry medication as appropriate and identify themselves to staff.

Large Animals

Many large, potentially dangerous mammals, including lions, rhinos, buffalo, and elephants, live in the region. All wild animals can be dangerous. Do not approach, antagonize, or tease any animal. Because of wildlife, you may not leave the research camp (as defined by the lawns surrounding the camp, beyond which is tall grass). Teams may travel in open vehicles at sites with no large predators. When traveling between sites or in Pilanesberg National Park, where dangerous wildlife is present, the team will ride in closed vehicles. In Pilanesberg, you are strictly forbidden to lean or climb out of the vehicle windows. You may only exit the vehicle at tourist hides and at the Pilanesberg Visitors Centre. Field rangers will accompany groups in areas with large, dangerous animals and will carry weapons for your protection. Rangers are well trained in weapon use. Volunteers will NOT be permitted to handle weapons at any time. Weapons are kept unloaded unless the teams are walking transects. When with armed rangers, walk in single file and always stay behind the guide. Keep within five meters of the person in front of you, be as quiet as possible, and wear earth-toned clothing. Always obey the guide and be aware of your surroundings.

Monitoring for Evidence of Poaching

While this optional task is scheduled for times when poachers are not typically active, encountering a poacher is always possible. Those who take part in this activity should heed the instructions of the project staff, scouts, and/or trackers at all times. Do not engage with a poacher should one be encountered.

Animal Handling and Rabies

You may participate in animal handling. Potential risks are bites or scratches. If you participate, you’ll receive instructions and a safety briefing, and be supervised or assisted at all times. You may not handle animals unless under the direct supervision of trained project staff. Protective equipment (e.g., gloves) will be provided. Always wash your hands after handling an animal. Animals known to carry Rabies will not be handled, however, you may wish to consult with their healthcare providers about the vaccine given the prevalence of loose and stray dogs in the region. Avoid stray dogs at all times.

Firearms

Field staff may carry firearms during research and non-research activities. The firearms are mainly for firing warning shots in the event of an animal encounter. This is standard practice in a bush environment. Only trained field staff will handle firearms. Volunteers will not hold or use firearms while on this project.

Travel Planning

RENDEZVOUS LOCATION

Johannesburg ORT International Airport, South Africa

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.

ABOUT YOUR DESTINATION

Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.

COUNTRY AND PROJECT ENTRY REQUIREMENTS

Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website: www.travisa.com.

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.

Resources

ARTICLES
  • Du Toit, R. & Anderson A., (2013). Dehorning rhinos. Wildlife Ranching. Autumn: 82-85
  • Milner-Gulland, E.J., Leader-Williams, N., Beddington, J.R. (1993) Is dehorning African rhinos worthwhile?. Pachyderm 17: 52-58.
  • Waldrom, M.S., Bond, W.J. & Stock, W.D. (2008) Ecological engineering by a mega-grazer: White rhino impacts on a South African savannah. Ecosystems, 11, 101-1
  • Hempson, G.P., Archibald, S., Bond, W.J., Ellis, R.P., Grant, C.C., Kruger, F.J., Kruger, L.M., Moxley, C., Owen- Smith, N., Peel, M.J.S., Smit, I.P.J. & Vickers, K.J. (2014) Ecology of grazing lawns in Africa. Biological Reviews. doi:10.1111/brv.12145
  • Penny, S. White, R. Scott, D., McTavish, L & Pernetta, A. (2019) Using drones and sirens to elicit avoidance behaviour in white rhino as an anti-poaching tactic. Proceedings of the Royal Society B doi. org/10.1098/rspb.2019.1135
  • Pernetta, A (2014) A disappearing drylands icon? White rhinoceros conservation and the need for public private Partnerships. BIODIVERSITY, 2014Vol. 15, Nos. 2 , http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14888386.2014.931248
BOOKS
  • Anthony, L. & Spence, G. The Last Rhinos.2013 Pan Publisher.
  • Rademeyer, J. Killing for a profit: Exposing the illegal rhino horn trade. 2012. Zebra Press.
FIELD GUIDES
  • Estes, R. The Behavior Guide to African Mammals. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991. Note: Excellent for large mammal behavior.
  • Sinclair, I., Hockey, P., and Tarboton, W. Guide to the Birds of Southern Africa. 2nd ed. Cape Town: Struik Publishers, 1998. Note: Essential for birdwatchers.
  • Stuart, C. and Stuart, T. Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa. Cape Town: Struik Publishers, 2000. Note: Good photos for animal identification.
PROJECT-RELATED WEBSITE
LITERATURE CITED
  • Pernetta, A (2014) A disappearing drylands icon? White rhinoceros conservation and the need for public private Partnerships. BIODIVERSITY, 2014 Vol. 15, Nos. 2 , http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14888386.2014.931248
  • Milliken T & Shaw, J, 2012. The South Africa-Vietnam rhino horn trade nexus: A deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professionals and Asian crime syndicates. TRAFFIC, Johannesburg.