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Tracking a rhino in the wild of Samburu

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Ferdinand Mwongela | May 22nd 2022 | 4 min read
By Ferdinand Mwongela | May 22nd 2022
SUNDAY MAGAZINE
30-year-old Ranger Salome Lemalasia from the Samburu community taking care of a 6-year-old black rhino named Loijipu. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Located in the far reaches of Samburu County is a quiet gem in the making. Sera Conservancy. The community conservancy, part of the Northern rangelands community of conservancies is making history in its own way, running one of the first community-run rhino sanctuaries.

The conservancy offers the chance of tracking a rhino in the wild -  not a simple undertaking under the scorching sun and umbrella of acacia trees. 

Our journey starts in Isiolo, at Kalama Conservancy, a few kilometres North of Archer’s post. We go off-road a few kilometres short of the scenic Mt Ololokwe.

The mountain is perhaps one of the most recognisable features of the Northern circuit. Travellers to Marsabit and other areas around here routinely pose for photos under the table-like mountain. 

With the mountain to our left and the gravel spinning underneath us, you could easily fall asleep.

Something, however, stands out; while the acacia trees offer the semblance of a forest, the ground is bare, the dust billowing with the vehicles at the head.

On the road to Sera, we drive through dry riverbeds, occasionally coming across fresh elephant dung, but disappointingly, not the elephants themselves. They are probably watching us from the safety of the bushes.

A blistering one-hour drive later, we arrive at Sera, and on to the fenced-off rhino sanctuary set in a section of the vast conservancy. 

Started in 2015 with 10 black rhinos, the conservancy is becoming a success story in rhino conservation. They hope to get some white rhinos soon, but for now, the conservancy, backed by an anti-poaching unit has its hands full. 

The rhino tracking is an elaborate and stealthy undertaking.  The people have to be split into groups of six, led by a ranger who is intimately familiar, not only with the geography of the place but also with the behaviour of the wild animals around us. 

Communication is only by hand signals, not very different from those we see in action movies, with signs for stop, freeze, or advance. 

When the first group sets off, the rangers have identified the location of a rhino - the only test now brings getting their charges close enough.

Unluckily. They get close enough, but the rhino with an acute sense of its surroundings soon senses their presence and takes off. So much for being quiet, and mostly failing at it. 

Rhino tracking is a unique experience offered here. And while the wild rhinos are the attraction, the star of the show is Lojipu, a lone male rhino raised by hand by the team here after being abandoned by his mother. 

When Lojipu is spotted, we are again required to be quiet to let him come close. 

Luckily, unlike his (totally) wild counterparts, he is much more used to people and soon comes close. He also lives in the wild but is having a hard time of it, being beaten by the other male rhinos who see him as an intruder into their territories. 

The previous day, he had gotten a thrashing from another rhino, and the team at Sera took some time locating him.

Close to the fence around the security camp, however, Lojipu feels much safer at home, and probably safe from the other rhinos who torment him in the wild.

While he is used to people, he has a favourite, Salome Lemalasia, the ranger who nurtured him by hand when he found himself cast away from the herd as a baby. 

Carefully, Lojipu approaches Lemalasia and starts feeding a few metres away, albeit on the other side of a short fence.

When the clicking of cameras and shuffling feet catch his attention, he lifts his head, a little annoyed, but calming words from Lemalasia have him feeding again quietly. 

A few metres away, the security team goes through their daily motions in the camp under a hill our driver calls the ‘poachers lookout’.

And while the conservancy has not had any case in a long while, the security team is not taking any chances, complete with a canine unit.

Back at the conservancy offices, another team keeps a close watch on cameras set strategically around watering holes to keep an eye on the animals of Sera - the cost of keeping the rhinos safe.

Apart from animals, one of the best offerings in northern Kenya is incredible landscapes, out of this world. 

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