by Betsy Herbert
Published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 9/25/2015
I’m sitting on my mosquito-netted bed in a thatch-roofed hut at the Moivaro Lodge on the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania, typing on my laptop. In a few hours, our tour guides will take 13 of us to the Kilimanjaro airport. We’ve just spent the last two weeks on a thrilling photo safari in the Serengeti and Tarangire national parks and the Ngorongoro National Conservation Area in this east African country where big game poaching, especially of elephants and black rhinos, is part of a regional environmental crisis.
Boniface Faustine was the lead guide for our tour, which was organized by the American company, Overseas Adventure Travel (www.oattravel.com). Faustine worked as a ranger in Serengeti National Park for three years before deciding to make a career change. He says that long periods away from his family and very real threats to the lives of park rangers drove his decision.
A bronze plaque at the rim of Ngorongoro Conservation Area serves as a memorial to six park rangers killed by poachers and bandits.
Faustine’s passion for protecting Tanzania’s wildlife commands attention to his well-prepared lectures about local species including the “The Big Five” — elephants, lions, rhinos, cape buffalo and leopards — some of the most sought after subjects for photographers.
Faustine emphasizes that revenue from tourism and photo safaris in the parks contributes significantly to government projects that stem poaching by catching and prosecuting the offenders.
Poachers, who are funded by international buyers of ivory and rhino horns, are heavily armed, technologically savvy, and may use helicopters to search out and kill their endangered prey. Their modus operandi is to cut out the tusks and horns, leaving the carcasses.
Poachers also attempt to eavesdrop on park ranger communications to locate targets.
To learn about efforts to conserve and protect the black rhino, we visited the Michael Grzimek Memorial Rhino Post in Serengeti National Park. In 1997, after poachers had killed all black rhinos in the park, the Rhino Post — with government authorization — captured two black rhinos in South Africa and airlifted them in crates to the Serengeti and Ngorogorango parks in Tanzania. The crate used to transport the rhinos is on display at the post.
As a result of this and other conservation projects, the black rhino is again breeding naturally in these parks, though rangers will not release actual population numbers or locations, so that poachers can’t retrieve that information.
While dismayed by the continuing problem of big game poaching, our group was somewhat relieved to know that photo safaris such as ours help to combat the problem.
No doubt, some impacts to wildlife are inherent in such tourism. From what I saw, though, these magnificent animals, especially the big cats, seemed to ignore us and our safari vehicles, which are strictly confined to park roads. They continued to hunt and be hunted, graze, bathe, nuzzle each other and loll about.
The tour was a photographer’s dream. We observed all of the Big Five in their native habitats, including three rhinos, hundreds of elephants and cape buffalo and entire prides of lions. Giraffes, gazelles, zebras, hippos and wildebeests were too numerous to count. One of my favorite snaps was of a hyena pup, just a few weeks old, who curiously came right up to our open-topped vehicle to sniff us out.
We also filmed two lionesses as they began to devour their fresh zebra kill. As vultures descended, the lionesses dragged the carcass across the road to the shade of an acacia tree.
I came away from this tour with an enhanced appreciation of all wildlife in this region, as well as a great respect for the rangers and conservationists who put their lives at risk to protect them.
Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.