Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Willem Pretorius Game Reserve, South Africa

Whether you are staying in the Free State or just passing through the Willem Pretorius Game Reserve is not to be missed. Like any other game park each experience will be different because you are dealing with wild animals and it can be very hit or miss. I visited twice during my time in Kroonstad and the first visit was fun, but no spectacular sitings, where the second time we got seriously up close and personal with a number of animals including the white rhino and giraffe. We even saw a white rhino with her one-month old baby. For those interested in history there are also remains of a well-preserved prehistoric settlement long-vanished Leghoya people (said to have been killed by the zulus hundreds of years ago) who once lived in the area. They were a very small people and their houses are tiny.

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I was lucky enough to be taken around by a wonderful ecologist named Herman who specializes in rhinoceroses and works at the park conducting research. This afforded us certain privileges not open to the public like walking outside of the vehicle, which if you are not with a guide with experience and most importantly permission can be a seriously dangerous experience for both you and the wild animals. Even with Herman I was very cautious when walking out of the car and we stayed within running distance so in case a rhino charged we could run back. We were charged once, but luckily the rhino changed his mind and didn't make it all the way to us because I promise you I am not as fast a rhino!

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There are plenty of animals to see at the reserve some of my favorites were the baboons, the sable, the giraffes, the kudo, the buffalo, and the black shouldered kite, which is endemic to the area. The park has some nice tall peaks so in addition to the possibilities of close up viewing you also are afforded beautiful landscapes and the chance to see the animals from above, which is a unique and interesting perspective.

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The main attraction is really the white rhinoceros. There are five species of rhinos in the world right now. The black and white rhino is found in Africa, although they are really both gray in color and the difference can be seen in their lips. There are two types of white rhinos, but the northern white rhino is thought to be extinct in the wild, the last four known were killed by poachers in 2008, you can read about it here. The white rhinoceros has recovered extremely well and is actually now considered only near threatened by the IUCN. They would even classify them as only vulnerable (which is less threatened than near threatened) but because of extreme poaching danger it is important to keep them as near threatened.

Their only natural enemy is us humans and they are hunted and killed by poachers after their horns. Just a few weeks before my first trip to WP poachers had come to the reserve by helicopter and darted two rhinos, cutting off their horns and leaving them alive, although often the stress from darting and cutting their horns when not handled properly can kill them. However both these rhinos were females and had just finished mating season and were most likely pregnant, the darting may have deeply affected, if not terminated, their pregnancies. Unlike elephant tusks, when a rhino horn is cut off it can regrow. However the shape will be different than before. To stop poaching many different methods have been put in place.

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Some rhino sanctuaries will cut off the horn so poachers won't kill the rhino for it. Others have been trying to drill small holes into the horn and fill it with cyanide that way when the horn is crushed into powder for medicines or aphrodisiacs the cyanide is released and the person using it will be killed. This is being heavily protested by human rights groups, but I think it's a brilliant idea and if people are cruel and stupid enough to engage in the illegal activity of slaughtering a rhino to ingest its horn then you get what you deserve as you understand the risks going into it.

Seeing them in the wild in their natural elements reinforces the importance of conservation efforts to keep them there. When I saw the baby rhino, only one-month old, with her mother I couldn't help but hope that she has a better chance at survival than her mother's generation. The white rhino population is on the rise and the recovery of them since the 60's has been incredible, now this same recovery must occur for the critically endangered black rhinoceros and we must continue to protect the white rhino. For more information and to see how you can help check out here.

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