Riding for Rhinos
A keeper’s quest to protect rhinos takes her to South Africa to train horses and rangers for a new mounted patrol unit
As a lifetime equestrienne, former rhinoceros keeper, and founding board member of the nonprofit Global Conservation Force (GCF), it was an absolute certainty that I would head to Amakhala Conservancy when renowned South African veterinarian Dr. William Fowlds requested assistance in developing a new equine-based anti-poaching unit to protect rhinos. What was uncertain was just how I would get myself to Africa—and how I could afford to take time away from my animal keeper duties at the Los Angeles Zoo.
Fortunately, timing was in my favor. Applications for the annual Ornato Animal Keeper Advanced Studies Grant were being accepted, and I was delighted when I was chosen as one of three recipients of this exceptional grant offering. In a day’s time, the trip I’d originally planned on behalf of GCF became an exciting collaboration between many entities—the GCF, the Los Angeles Zoo, and Dr. Fowlds’ nonprofit, the African Rhino Conservation Collaboration (ARCC).
In the early stages of planning my trip, I reached out to my local chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK/LA) about another possible collaboration—a fundraising event on World Rhino Day, September 22. We organized a fun evening at Burbank’s Viva Cantina featuring food, drinks, and a silent auction—with all the proceeds going to fund the new equine unit. I am utterly humbled and grateful to AAZK/LA and the other members of the L.A. Zoo community who came out and supported the event.
Because of that effort I was able to arrive in South Africa a mere four days later with a game-changing $2,700 to launch the fledgling conservation effort. My time there would have been significant and worthwhile even without the funding, but the community’s generous support quite literally supplied the building blocks to make this unique effort take flight. ♞
The vast majority of the world’s rhinos live in South Africa, where the top threat to their survival is poaching. We’re not talking about subsistence hunting, where locals kill animals to feed their families. These poachers are part of a vast organized crime network. Black market demand for rhinoceros horn (whether for its purported medicinal properties or ornamental value) is what fuels this wide-scale slaughter. In 2017 alone, 1,028 rhinos were killed in South Africa.
Anti-poaching units (APUs) are the frontline in guarding against poachers at Amakhala and other area reserves. These well-trained, armed rangers patrol on foot or in vehicles. At Amakhala they also utilize drones, tracking dogs, and an ultralight aircraft that flies over the entire reserve. The project I was embarking on would add another tool to the anti-poaching arsenal: horses.
Rangers can cover more ground on horseback than on foot. To a poacher, a mounted ranger has a more commanding presence. Horses also have many advantages over vehicles. Rangers on horseback have greater maneuverability; they can go off-road, basically anywhere on the reserve, just like the wildlife. Horses are quieter than vehicles and can move at night without lights. They are also ecologically kinder than vehicles and cheaper to maintain. For these reasons, wildlife veterinarian Dr. Danni Jackson had proposed starting an equine unit at Amakhala.
Prior to my arrival, the horse project had languished due to lack of funding. That was about to change. ♞
When I arrived at Amakhala on that dreary, windblown day, even I could not have foreseen the magnitude of the ripples that my presence would cast. While my main focus was on the horse project, I also had many opportunities to attend field veterinary procedures with Dr. Fowlds.
My first day on site, before heading out to meet the project’s horses, I was allowed the unique experience to partake in a giraffe relocation. (Two giraffes were being moved from one area of the reserve to another for breeding purposes.) I had, of course, promised Dr. Fowlds I would stay out of the way if he let me ride with him in the darting vehicle. But in those first instinctual moments when my feet hit the ground and the chase was on, I knew I was perfectly in my element and hoped that Dr. Fowlds would forgive my impetuous assistance.
I don’t know if much will ever top racing behind a recently sedated giraffe, running stride for stride with the bushmen and helping loop the rope across the giant’s chest to gently bring him down to his knees before he slowly sank to the earth. Watching Dr. Fowlds and his team process the animal, get him upright again, and expertly guide him into a waiting trailer is one of the most incredible experiences I have ever known.
Soon afterward it was time to meet the horses—and their owner, Giles Gush. Giles, an Amakhala partner and member of the ARCC, was instrumental in getting the horse unit up and running. He agreed to lend us some of his Amakhala safari trail horses to get the pilot project moving. He will also allow future APU horses to train at his location.
When I arrived at Giles’ farm I was unnerved to see no stables, corrals, round pens, or any of the comforts that the average American horseman would like to have when working horses. With such meager “tools” at my disposal, I realized the enormity of the task at hand and wondered if I would really be able to accomplish all I intended.
Things took an even more alarming turn when we went to meet the horses. Imagine my surprise when it required a safari jeep ride through 350 acres of bush to go collect them. Deep doubt and a silent scream lay just beneath my smile as we careened through the bush and rounded them up—a task I would have to perform every morning until we managed to relocate some of the horses to the APU base.
Once I got the lay of the land and a better understanding of the vision for the equine unit, I dove in head first. My original objectives were to identify a few older horses for APU use and to begin teaching the rangers all that I could about horses. Two young rangers had volunteered to take part in the program, and neither had any prior experience with horses! Because Giles’ safari trail horses had already been exposed to much of the African wildlife surrounding the reserve, it was determined that using them would be the most effective way to get competent, rideable horses quickly ready for use by the rangers. As time allowed, I also chose a few young horses to start training.
The APU base in Amakhala is located about four kilometers from Giles Gush’s farm. The distance made logistics of the project challenging. A few weeks into my stay, Dr. Danni Jackson (the project’s original coordinator) and I discussed the prospect of moving the horses. Having the horses on-site for training would be beneficial for the rangers.
The idea of moving the horses had previously been a mere pipe dream. The APU base wasn’t outfitted for horses, and there had been no funding available for this purpose. That’s why the money raised from World Rhino Day was a game changer. Danni and I quickly set to making a real-time budget. We drove to the local farm store and bought water troughs, water lines, food for the horses, fencing and grooming supplies, and other items needed to prepare for the horses’ transfer to the APU base.
Everyone on Amakhala Conservancy, including Dr. Fowlds, was awestruck by the speed at which the project was now catapulting forward. With successful movement of the chosen APU horses to Amakhala, our next goal was to get the horses and the rangers out onto the main reserve where the rhinos and elephants are located. ♞
In 2017 alone, 1,028 rhinos were killed in South Africa.
On a perfectly iconic African day with a bright blue sky and pillow-puff clouds overhead, we rode out onto the reserve and immediately encountered a large herd of giraffe. While the horses had seen giraffe in the distance during safari trail rides, it was clear that the giraffe didn’t know what to think about us. They were curious and watchful but quickly sank back into the protection of the veldt, leaving only their heads and necks visible to us.
As we slowly moved on, one of the most transcendent moments of my trip occurred. The giraffe herd—at one point 23 strong—silently joined up with us and began to mirror our movements. I won’t soon forget their newfound ease with us, or the smile on one ranger’s face as he excitedly exclaimed, “This is unbelievable; we can never get this close to them!” I knew then that the horses’ usefulness to the anti-poaching unit would be far greater than we had ever anticipated.
We had several more ride-outs onto the main reserve to acclimate the horses to animals they hadn’t yet encountered—notably the very rhinos they would one day protect. We were able to approach a herd of white rhino, inclusive of a cow and three-week-old calf. These distant cousins—horse and rhinoceros—showed great curiosity toward one another but no unsettling behavior. This aspect of species acclimation is of great importance and is being handled with meticulous care at Amakhala, since a misstep—especially with carnivores such as lions—could spell disaster for the entire project.
An unforeseen but very important advantage of moving the horses to the APU base involved the local community. Children from the village were especially excited by the horses’ presence and would eagerly follow us when we went out with them. Seeing the kids’ faces light up whenever they saw the horses made me realize that these animals will be instrumental in bridging the gap between the project and the community.
While I experienced many wonderful and successful days in Africa, I also experienced one of the most soul-crushing. On October 24, Dr. Fowlds’ team was called out to save a poaching survivor—a female rhinoceros who unfortunately succumbed to her injuries during our long journey to reach her. When we arrived at the scene there was not one but—horrifyingly—three white rhino, all shot the previous night, their horns callously removed. It was too late for veterinary assistance. Instead, we morosely took to performing post-mortem and crime-scene duties. The darkness of that day still lies heavily on my spirit and always will, but it also keeps me focused on helping the people in the field who are trying desperately to protect our iconic African species.
My resolve is simple: We cannot give up on the dark days or fall into despair when we hear the horrific numbers of rhinos poached in the last year or decade. We must keep hopeful sight of the unknown and intangible numbers of rhino that are most certainly saved nightly by strong, well-equipped APU forces on patrol.
I am so proud to have represented the Los Angeles Zoo and remain grateful to Dominic Ornato for allowing me to use my unique skill set to enhance the Amakhala Anti-Poaching Unit with the added protection of horses on patrol. I will be returning in early April to teach rangers more advanced riding skills—and I invite you to once again follow the project’s progression. ■
For more information and updates about the equine project, follow @RhinosGCF on Facebook or Twitter. Watch videos of Roxane training the horses for this project on the Zoo’s website: www.lazoo.org/ridingforrhinos
This article originally ran in the Spring 2018 issue of Zoo View, the award-winning quarterly magazine of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. A subscription is complimentary with any level of membership.