Tracking Twigs

By Jean Venter

Black rhinos are big, imposing animals with a particularly curious look… Two long horns, after which they are named (Diceros bicornis: Di – two in Greek, ceros from “cerato” meaning horn in Greek; bi – two in Latin, cornis – horn in Latin i.e Two-horn two-horn). They have high raised necks, which suit their browsing nature, tough, leathery skin and massive bodies, and are much more agile than they look. You would think these imposing and iconic-looking creatures are easy to find. But that is never the case.  They spend much of their time during the day hiding from the heat in thickets, and often cover massive distances at night.

The easiest way to find black rhinos is by tracking them, which is, in fact, not easy at all. Although they sometimes leave clear prints in the soil with their big bodies and three-toed feet, most of the time the clues are much more imperceptive.

Black rhino foorprints, wlakie-talkie for size reference

Tracking black rhinos requires a fine eye, looking out for disturbed vegetation like flattened grass, twigs cut at a 45-degree angle and sometimes just a slight change in the colour of the soil where they treaded earlier.

Do not look too closely for signs though, you might just walk right into their sharp end, which is the clearest of all signs of a rhinos presence. However, sometimes there are auditory clues that black rhinos are in close proximity: the stomping of feet to rid themselves of ticks and fleas, the chomping of woody vegetation in their massive mouth cavities, and sometimes just snoring. The most terrifying sound in the bush is the alarm call of an oxpecker, which often eats parasites off of rhinos and buffaloes.

Walking into black rhinos could sometimes be dangerous, but they are not as bad-tempered as is commonly believed. They are simply curious, with terrible vision, which requires them to inspect humans at a very uncomfortable distance. Black rhinos have a very keen sense of smell though, and the slightest whiff of a human due to a change in wind direction will send them on their way, in whichever direction feels safest.

Black rhinos also have well developed spatial awareness. The rhinos in Liwonde National Park often make use of the same footpaths on a regular basis and use the same areas consistently, which often make their movements somewhat predictable.

Black rhinos were translocated to Liwonde National Park in Malawi late 2019, which has bolstered the current black rhino population in Liwonde and in Malawi and has made a valuable contribution to expanding the current range of black rhinos into areas where they were previously extirpated.

I am doing research on the diet, habitat use, and home ranges of black rhinos in Liwonde National Park, in the Upper Shire Valley of Malawi, an area where not much is known about the resource availability and resource use as it pertains to black rhinos. The diet component in particular requires a lot of fieldwork. I wake up at times that often still feel like midnight, in order to start looking for rhinos at sunrise. As soon as I have found a rhino and identified the individual, I start backtracking on the rhinos spoor to look for fresh signs of feeding, which I record.

Spending a lot of time with black rhinos and in their tracks has given me a newfound fascination and amazement of these exceptional creatures. It has taught me a lot about their habits, their preferences and their day-to-day activities. Fieldwork does come with its challenges though: getting stuck in mud, walking extremely long distances in the Malawi sun, and walking into lions are the most memorable ones.

However, these are all very small prices to pay for the amazing opportunity to spend time in the bush and study such extremely interesting and complex animals. Liwonde National Park has offered me a lot in the way of experience and life lessons, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.