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December 2003

This Month:
• Update from Wilderness Safaris on the Rhinos released in Botswana
Rocktail Bay Dive Report for December - incrdible spot for guests who love to dive!

Botswana Camps
Wilderness Safaris' Rhino Trust update 
Recently released black and white rhinos

The last few months have seen incredible progress towards our goal of re-establishing both African rhino species in the wild in Botswana's Okavango Delta. At the beginning of 2003, there were 15 wild rhinos in Botswana, all white rhinos - now there are 31, including the first four black rhinos. The black rhino has been classified as "locally extinct" in Botswana for over a decade, a classification which has been made redundant with the arrival of two males and two females at Mombo Camp in late October 2003.

Two of these black rhinos were a gift from Namibia and the other two were part of a wildlife exchange program me between the two governments. We actually exchanged the original animals with South Africa to get the exact right subspecies (Diceros bicornis minor) for Botswana. At the same time another ten white rhinos were brought in from South Africa, the final consignment under the "roan antelope for rhino" exchange programme. These white rhinos were all females, and with their release the target sex ratio of approximately 2/3 females to 1/3 males - the optimum ratio for breeding – has been achieved.

As yet we are still awaiting the first birth of a rhino calf - this will be a huge event as it will be the first wild rhino birth in Botswana for perhaps 15 years or more. We are confident that we will see births during 2004, and very possibly during the first half of the year. Watch this space…

Now that we have had rhinos in the Okavango Delta for two complete years (the first white rhinos were re-introduced here in November 2001) we have a much better idea of their movements through the seasons. The Delta is a wonderfully dynamic ecosystem and it has been fascinating (through our intensive security and research monitoring programme) to observe and try and understand the rhinos' seasonal movements.

All the social and territorial behaviour we would expect has been taking place, and we can be fairly confident that several of our female white rhinos are now expecting…

A black rhino munching some magic gwarri bush in the Mombo rhino bomasCaring for the black rhinos in the bomas prior to their release was a fascinating experience. They are very different from the white rhino, of course, being a browsing animal rather than a grazer, and despite their reputation for aggression, they very quickly adapted to their temporary homes in the bomas.

We experimented with a wide range of Delta plants to find out which the rhinos would prefer. They showed a definite preference for blue bush (Diospyros lycioides) and - surprisingly, as it has very tannic leaves - the magic gwarri bush (Euclea divinorum). They also happily ate large fever-berry (Croton megalobotrys), jackalberry (Diospyros mespiliformis), and some acacia species. Each afternoon we would set out to collect fresh browse for the four rhinos and it was very interesting to see their quite different feeding technique, using their prehensile upper lip to pull leaves and twigs into their mouths.

The black rhinos were quite selective as to which plants they would eat, but once they had found one they enjoyed, they would eat branches up to the thickness of your thumb! During the rhinos' short stay in the bomas, we had a great opportunity to study these very different rhinos and couldn't wait to release them and see them out in the bush.

The Vice President of Botswana, Lt Gen Ian Khama, who released the first white rhinos for us back in 2001, again opened the gates to release the first black rhino. A huge moment for rhino conservation in Botswana. However the rhino had other ideas (or perhaps he was just suffering from stage fright!) He emerged briefly from the boma three times, each time to return, before finally moving off into freedom after dark.

Over the next two days, two females and the second male were released - the return of the black rhino to the wild in Botswana! Since their release, we have had some great moments tracking these rhinos in the bush. As we had predicted, none of them moved too far from Mombo - an indication of just how good the habitat is here for rhinos. And it's getting better - the rains, late this year, have finally started - and Mombo is getting greener by the day, with new grass growth and new leaves on the trees and bushes, also many of the smaller pans are filling up with rain now.

So at the end of 2003 there were over twice as many rhinos in the Okavango Delta as at the beginning of the year. However, along with all the achievements and good news, there have been a few setbacks… At the same time as the black rhinos and more white rhinos were being released, several white rhinos mortalities were experienced.

One subadult male was tragically killed by a bush fire (probably started by lightning) on Chief's Island - rhinos have been recorded as having been killed by fires several time in South Africa, and seem to be quite vulnerable to this natural phenomenon. We also lost two rhinos during necessary capture and transport operations. These are always risky, especially in the summer heat. Despite every precaution, one rhino died of stress as we were trying to return her from an area close to the Caprivi Strip which is a poaching blackspot, and we had to euthanase a second rhino which incurred a leg injury during transport. Given the road conditions in remote parts of Botswana, the stress on the rhinos can be considerable.

The worst news came in October, when two of our rhinos were shot and killed by poachers. This is always the biggest danger for any rhino population and our worst fear became a reality when local men from a transient settlement tracked two of the rhinos and shot them, hoping to sell the horns in Maun.

It seems that this was an opportunistic crime, rather than an organised poaching gang. However, it meant two dead rhinos and prompted a massive upgrade to our (already stringent) security measures. The crime backfired as the poachers were easily tracked by following the signals in the transmitters in the horns, and are now facing trial. If convicted they face up to 15 years in prison.

Hopefully the publicity surrounding this crime and its consequences will act as a powerful deterrent to any other potential poachers. The vigorous response of the police, anti-poaching unit, and Botswana Defence Force illustrated how seriously Botswana takes this sort of crime, and underlines the government's commitment both to this project and to conservation in the Okavango Delta and beyond.

Only a week after this crime, three white rhinos were released, reversing the loss that had been suffered and sending out a powerful message that the project team would not be dispirited or discouraged by this incident.

A black rhino as it emerges from the rhino bomas at Mombo Camp in BotswanaBuilding on our successes of the last two years, we have very ambitious plans for 2004, focussing on increasing our black rhino population. In a US$1 million project, we are looking to reintroduce a further 14 black rhinos during this year. We are hoping to bring in seven wild female black rhinos from Zimbabwe, and to rehabilitate seven black rhino males from zoos in the USA and Australia. This has been done before, and it should take about six months to "teach" these bulls to be wild rhinos again.

To "buy" the rhinos from Zimbabwe, the national parks department there is being given training and assistance as compensation for the value of the rhinos, rather than cash. At Wilderness Safaris we have pledged to raise US$60,000 - the auction value of one black rhino. We are well on our way to achieving this target but we still need your assistance! If you are able to contribute to the most exciting conservation project in southern Africa this year, please contact us... (Contact: Grant Woodrow, Rhino Project Manager. Email: grantw@ows.bw, Tel: +267 6860086).

If this goal is achieved, breeding populations of both African rhino species will have been re-established in the Okavango Delta, and all being well, there will be celebrations for the birth of one or more rhino calves in the wild in Botswana - the ultimate seal of approval on this project, from the rhinos themselves.

Several of the rhinos released in November have not moved very far at all from Mombo, probably due to the excellence of the habitat in this area now that the rains have at last begun. This means that Mombo guests are now quite regularly seeing rhinos - both black and white - on game drives. Some guests have even been lucky enough to see both species in the same afternoon. One of the female black rhinos, Mmabontsho, has indeed become a game drive star!

Joint monitoring patrols with the Anti-Poaching Unit from the Department of Wildlife & National Parks are continuing to achieve good results, and we are having good successes in tracking some of the newly-released rhinos, also some of our more established rhinos who have been moving to new areas to find the very best grazing. Also we have been enjoying the ongoing "rhino soap opera" as the territorial bulls try to detach females from their groups, and are busy marking their territories against incursions by other males.

The Delta is now certainly marked again as rhino territory, with more rhinos due to arrive this year to underline this major achievement.

A black rhino contemplates his new freedom in the Okavango Delta of BotswanaSPECIAL THANKS
Wilderness Safaris would like to thank Ned and Diana Twining for a donation of US$10,000. This donation is extremely generous and has already been put to good use in the development of the rhino project.

The SAVE Foundation in Australia has donated an additional AUS$10,000 to the rhino project as a result of a second fundraiser. We have also received substantial personal donations from Mombo guests, notably Colin and Tilly Patteson who donated US$10,000 and Pamela and Neville Isdell who donated US$2,500. These donations will go directly towards the cost of bringing in additional black rhinos to boost the Okavango’s population of these amazing animals during 2004.

These donations are doubled thanks to the generosity of Ned and Diana Twining who have very generously offered to match any donation we receive, on behalf of THE AFRICA CONSERVATION SCIENCE CENTRES. So we have recently raised well over US$30,000 – or approximately half the cost of one black rhino!

To all the private individuals and organizations that have assisted this project financially, you are now part of an unbelievable project. We would like to encourage others to help us successfully implement the future phases of the project. All funds will be administered through the Wilderness Trust Fund ensuring that all monies are allocated to the Rhino Project.


South Africa Camps
Rocktail Bay dive report 
This is what has been happening at Rocktail Bay Lodge and its dive operation during the month of December 2003. Rocktail Bay in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal is certainly the best dive spot in all of South Africa... wonderful corals, warm water, lots of underwater activity and a great dive team. But most important of all, they have an area of about 40km of pristine coastline and theirs is the only boat along this entire stretch of coastline. The dive reefs are all pristine and immaculate. It's not only for scuba divers... a lot of Rocktail's guests hop on boats and enjoy the boat trip or dive overboard and snorkel.  Herewith the report from Rocktail's management...

This month has been a wonderful end to a fantastic year. Sunny skies, warm water, flat seas - who could ask for more?

Gogo's has been the site to dive this month. Over and above the normal breathtaking corals and fish life we had three special sightings this month. The first sighting was a leatherback turtle seen by divers whilst on the dive, rather than at the surface where we occasionally see them. The next exciting moment was when we encountered a 2.5meter brindle bass in Tyson's (the resident potato bass) territory. This fish was golden brown in colour and very inquisitive, coming right in to the divers with Tyson in close attendance. Funny enough he did not seem to be too worried about the intrusion into his territory. The very next dive Darryl and Leza stayed down and low and behold a beautiful sailfish swam by. It was approximately 25kg and it displayed its sail and brilliant colours before moving off into the distance. Just proves, the dive is never finished until you get back on the boat!

The bottlenose dolphins have certainly been in a festive mood this month, we have seen them on 10 different occasions, often chasing garfish on the surface. Whilst on a dive at Elusive we could hear a consistent buzzing which Darryl told us was a pod of approximately 200 spinner dolphins that were a bit further out to sea.

Hang Ten has a lovely little cave area where 2 cave bass hang out, each weighing about 6kg. Every time we dive there we notice them, that is until Darryl noticed the resident potato bass with an enormous stomach and a tail protruding from his mouth! There were 2 cave bass and now there is only 1! Other sightings of great interest on Hang Ten have been big schools of squid. It is normally hard to get close to squid as they are very quick and normally jet off the moment you get too close, these however do not move away and we have discovered why. Clive saw a couple of squid close to a rock on the sand and spotted one moving in and out of the ledge. On investigation he found white egg sacs attached to the bottom of the ledge. In summer this little reef also attracts a large number of rays, marbled electric, brown stingrays, black marbled ribbon-tail ray and the beautiful honeycomb rays. There is also a sand shark, which is often seen out across the sand.

Towards the end of the month we had a wonderfully exciting dive at Elusive. We were just over half way through our dive time as we made our way through the gully that leads out to the seaward section of the reef. As we rounded the corner we saw a couple of cobia, then more and more. They were all playing around the sand, circling and coming in close to look at us - there were about 20 in total. Down on the sand we saw their travelling companion, a huge ray. We spent the remainder of our dive watching this spectacle until the ray darted off, followed by his entourage. The reason they are always together is that as the ray forages in the sand he disturbs crabs and other morsels for the cobia to feed on.

A new find this month - Aerial reef! This little reef is situated slightly north of Pantry and we decided to check it out. Darryl told us the shape of the reef and where to head and off we went. As we descended we were amazed, the reef started on a built up area with goldies milling around above the reef and sprats in the mid water with some lovely black tip kingfish waiting to pounce on them. More potato bass - another three! Just as curious as all the others we have encountered. Life all around - big rays, eels, turtles. It's going to be exciting to explore this reef thoroughly.

This time of year we expect to start seeing the female ragged tooth sharks as last season they arrived on 18 December. We have been checking the cave area behind Island Rock where they gather during their pregnancy to rest. They have not yet arrived but have been sighted south of us at Quarter Mile Reef in Sodwana. They could arrive any day now - something else to look forward to in January. Hoping that the later they arrive the longer they will stay.

A final farewell to the year was on the 31st December when we saw a humpback whale sailing, with it's tail out of the water - a fitting end to a wonderful year!

Wishing you and your families all the best for 2004.

Darryl, Clive and Michelle
The Rocktail Bay Dive Team



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