Bringing rhinos back to Uganda, one calf at a time

Rhinos are coming back to Uganda.

The animals, indigenous to the country, were completely wiped out by 1982. Now, thanks to the combined effort of several private and public bodies, they are making a comeback.

About 110 miles (177 kilometers) north of the capital Kampala lies the privately own, non-profit Zhiwa Rhino Sanctuary, 7,000 hectares of suitable savannah and native woodlands.

Six southern white rhinos were introduced here in 2005. Now there are fifteen.

Maximum security

These rhinos are heavily protected. A 2 meter electric fence surrounds the whole 70 square kilometer sanctuary, and the animals themselves are kept under armed guard at all times.

A team of about 70 park rangers and guards tracks the herd's movements and follows them around, even at night.

To avoid scaring the rhinos or interfering with their lives, the guards use bird-like noises to communicate. Also, keeping quiet is essential to avoid giving away the animals' location.

They are entitled to shoot if they encounter armed poachers. So far, none have entered the sanctuary.

Gender imbalance

The original group was composed of four animals from Kenya, bought from the Solio Ranch in the Rift Valley Province, and two from the United States, donated by Walt Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando.

The first birth was in 2009: the mother was from the U.S. and the father from Kenya, so the calf was called Obama.

But the six were evenly split between females and males, which caused a bit of a problem. A group needs more females to allow for a dominant male: the gender balance causes too much fighting.

Before they can be reintroduced into the wild, the program needs to reach a minimum of twenty animals, with ideally a five-to-one ratio between cows and bulls.

Disappearing plants

The surrounding land has been ravaged by poachers in the past decades, but it wasn't just the animals suffering. Plants have also been collected to the point of extinction.

Locals have used medicinal plants as remedies for various ailments for centuries, but now people are collecting them for commercial gain. And unlike rhino horns, which are used in alternative medicine without any scientific backing whatsoever, some of these plants have been shown to be effective in lab tests, for example in increasing sperm count in mice.

Add to that the illegal cutting for firewood, and vegetation is disappearing at an alarming pace, hurting both the land and the local populations who depend on it.

It won't be easy to reverse the damage, but identifying the problem is a good way to start.

Fixing it will require patience and a coordinated effort. Just like with rhinos, which are coming back to Uganda one calf at a time.