On a bright day in Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, I stood watching a group of 10 southern white rhinos grazing with nothing between us but tall green grass. We were downwind so they couldn’t smell us, and far enough outside their poor range of vision that they couldn’t quite see us. But we were close enough to get a sense of their hulking bodies and hear the rustling of their thick legs moving through the grass. I felt my senses perk up—a mix of heightened caution, awe, and connection to my surroundings I’ve only ever felt on walks in the bush near large animals. I turned to Drew Bantlin, Akagera’s conservation and research manager, who was a few steps away, to make sure all was OK.
“We’re watching to make sure they’re active, relaxed, and not showing any signs of stress or lethargy,” he said.
This walking safari had a purpose beyond enjoying rhinos in the landscape. It was March 2022, and I had been invited to join Bantlin and his team on an observational walk to monitor the health and behavior of these rhinos, which were living within a 200-acre enclosure in their new home of Akagera. They had arrived three months earlier following a journey that started more than 2,000 miles away in andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa. Several months after my visit, in the first week of July 2022, the rhinos were deemed fit enough to be released from their enclosure. Soon after that, they were venturing deeper into the park, taking advantage of the abundant food and water sources—some giving birth to calves. “They’re thriving,” Bantlin told me recently on a call. “Their health is good, and we’re seeing totally normal social interactions and behavior. Everything is looking up.”
Getting to the point where a boundary-pushing wildlife translocation like this one in Akagera was even thinkable has been years in the making. In 2010, the Rwandan government entered into a long-term agreement with NGO African Parks to manage the 430-square-mile park in eastern Rwanda on the Tanzanian border. Over the last decade, with government and donor support, African Parks brought biodiversity back to the park, which had been degraded by poachers and illegal settlers following the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Today, it’s a haven for savanna and wetland animals: Lions were introduced in 2015, and critically endangered eastern black rhinos arrived in 2017, a decade after the last one was seen in the park. Visitation to the park quintupled between 2005 and 2019 to about 58,000 people, while 2022 is showing record tourism numbers, according to Bantlin (half of the visitors are Rwandan nationals).
On November 29, 2021, 30 white rhinos arrived in the Rwandan capital of Kigali on a Boeing 747 jet in what was the largest single rhino translocation in history. The months-long process—kept secret for security reasons until after the translocation was complete—began with a multi-week stay in an enclosure to monitor their nutrition and socialize them. It was followed by a more than 40-hour journey by road and air. The goal of the translocation, a joint effort among the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), African Parks, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and andBeyond, was to extend the range of the near-threatened white rhinos to Akagera, which has a suitable habitat for them. The presence of white rhinos, whose grazing habits in open grassland and calmer disposition make them easier to see than the more elusive black rhinos, would also offer an exciting new reason for people to visit this emerging Rwandan park. Guests have already been reporting sightings of groups and even calves.
“Conservation is a top priority for Rwanda, and it enables tourism, improves people’s lives, and contributes significantly to the country’s economy,” said Ariella Kageruka, head of tourism and conservation for the RDB, in an email. “This results from deliberate, consistent, and comprehensive conservation efforts by the government of Rwanda in close collaboration with communities and our conservation partners.”
Even in a tiny country like Rwanda, which is slightly smaller than Maryland, the RDB has over the past two decades made sustainable tourism a priority, collaborating with experts on many initiatives to restore biodiversity in its four national parks. According to a 2021 report on Rwanda released by African Leadership University’s School of Wildlife Conservation, tourism makes up 10.2 percent of the country’s total economy—double what it was in 2010—and more than 80 percent of tourism in Rwanda is nature-based. Park revenue, the majority of which comes from tourism, supports land and wildlife management and conservation, while 10 percent of profits go directly back to park-adjacent communities, where many residents are employed in everything from guiding to research.
“The [rhinos] have plenty of grass, water, everything they need, but more importantly that management and operational capacity is there with the unwavering support of communities and government,” said Bantlin. “It’s the perfect mix to make something like this a success.”
As African rhino populations continue to shrink, the stakes are high. A new report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature revealed that between 2018 and 2021, the white rhino population declined by 12 percent to 15,942—though some conservationists say numbers have plummeted even further. Like Africa’s black rhinos, of which there are just 6,195, white rhinos are victims of criminal syndicates that poach them for their horns, which are prized in parts of Asia for their spurious medicinal qualities (they’re made with the same kind of keratin as fingernails). The situation is especially dire in South Africa, which has the world’s largest rhino populations and accounted for 90 percent of the 2,707 reported rhino poaching cases on the continent between 2018 and 2021. In the first six months of 2022, the country has already lost 259 rhinos to poaching. It remains a race against time for conservationists and rangers who work on the front lines protecting ever-declining African rhino populations, sometimes at the cost of their lives.
This is a battle Phinda conservation manager Simon Naylor and his team have been fighting with increasing intensity for more than a decade, ever since the first rhino on the private reserve was poached in 2011. In addition to measures ranging from thermal drones to anti-poaching dog units, Phinda also trims rhino horns—a proven deterrent that many conservationists see as a necessary evil, as a dehorned rhino no longer has any value to a poacher. The reserve began offering trimming in 2016 as a hands-on guest experience to cover the prohibitive cost. This month, the reserve trimmed its last white rhino with an intact horn, which can take years to grow back.
“It was pretty sad actually,” Naylor said on a call. “I don’t think we’ll see a rhino with a horn like that ever again here.”
Poaching pressure in southern Africa has made it crucial that new ranges be created for the southern white rhino, which never historically existed in Rwanda but can thrive in that habitat. “Things don’t look good for rhinos,” said Naylor. “But that’s why translocations to places like Akagera are critical to their future. If they’re looked after well, and there’s good habitat there, [Akagera] has the potential for having one of the largest rhino populations left in the world. This is the short-, medium-, and long-term answer to the banking of a species.”
On that same trip to Africa where I visited Akagera in March 2022, I also visited Phinda to participate in the trimming of a rhino horn, a guest activity so popular that it’s sold out for 2022 and booking up fast for 2023. The procedure sounds straightforward on paper, but it’s an entirely different thing in practice. A vet darts the rhino via helicopter—not an easy task from the sky with a moving target below. When the sedative kicks in, the rhino is approached by a team on the ground, which has to work quickly so that the rhino isn’t down for too long. As I held the ears of the young white rhino we darted, tiny bits of keratin rained down on me while the vet, Dr. Mike Toft, removed the horn with a loud chainsaw. Occasionally the animal would raise its head, and every time my heart seemed to stop. The act of trimming a horn felt so violent and raw that I had to remind myself this was all in the name of saving the life of this enormous, vulnerable creature below me.
Even as rhinos in Africa face a nebulous future, the Akagera translocation offered me a sliver of hope to hold onto, at least in Akagera, whose security measures and government backing have ensured that not a single rhino has been poached since 2017, when eastern black rhinos were reintroduced. According to Bantlin, the park is now one of the best places in East Africa to see these awe-inspiring animals.
“If we can develop Akagera into a stronghold for rhinos in East Africa, we may be able to support other parts of the region by having animals available,” he said. “Ultimately, if we can provide a new range state for a vulnerable species like the near threatened white rhino or critically endangered black rhino, we need to just do it. We don’t have time.”
Retreats that offer a chance at close encounters with rhinos
At these lodges and camps in Africa, travelers have a good chance of seeing rhinos in the wild—and visiting can help support the threatened animals.
Wilderness Safaris Magashi Tented Camp, Rwanda
Magashi sits on close to 15,000 exclusive-use acres in the northern reaches of Akagera. The camp’s six stilted canvas tents, with traditional black-and-white imigongo flourishes and rose-hued mosquito nets, are positioned along the shores of Lake Rwanyakazinga, where it’s common to see elephant herds drinking water. When not tracking rhinos with their guide, guests can explore the lake on one of the camp’s private boats. Pair Magashi with a stay at Ruzizi Tented Lodge, a nine-tent ecocamp managed by African Parks in the southern part of Akagera, less than three miles from the park entrance.
andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa
Set on 74,000 acres in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, Phinda is home to seven different habitats, including a rare and ancient dry sand forest. Each of the reserve’s six lodges offers a different experience of the landscape—the six-suite Vlei Lodge sits on the edge of the sand forest, while the six stone-walled suites of Rock Lodge were built into a hill and overlook a green valley. Phinda’s rhino trimming activity is sold out for 2022, but there is still availability in 2023—although it’s booking up quickly. Hands-on rhino experiences are also available between April and September 2023 at andBeyond’s Ngala Private Game Reserve, next to South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
Ol Pejeta Bush Camp, Kenya
A former cattle ranch turned conservation area in Kenya’s Laikipia County, Ol Pejeta Conservancy is still used sustainably by herders, whose Boran cattle help to fertilize the land. The conservancy is famously home to the world’s last two remaining northern white rhinos. Among the various lodging options is Asilia Africa’s Ol Pejeta Bush Camp, composed of seven large tents that sit along the Ewaso Ngiro River. It’s a comfortable base for bush drives in search of the conservancy’s black rhinos and southern white rhinos. Guests can also arrange to see the last two northern white rhinos, which are under 24-hour armed protection.
Desert Rhino Camp, Namibia
Located in mountainous Damaraland, in semi-arid north-central Namibia, Wilderness Safaris’ Desert Rhino Camp offers the chance to view one of Africa’s largest wild populations of desert-adapted black rhino. Guests can join Save the Rhino monitors as they track rhinos on foot or by vehicle. The eight large tents, designed in neutral tones and reds, face sweeping desert landscapes and the mountain ranges beyond them.
Elewana Loisaba Tented Camp, Kenya
In Kenya’s Laikipia County, the 57,000-acre area that makes up the Loisaba Conservancy, owned by the Loisaba Community Trust, hasn’t seen black rhinos since every last one was poached in the 1970s. That’s about to change at the end of September 2022, when Loisaba begins a months-long process to reintroduce black rhinos using populations from nearby Solio Ranch, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, and Ol Malo. Stay at Elewana Loisaba Tented Camp, a collection of eight rooms under canvas that sit on the edge of an escarpment, or the eight-tent Loisaba Lodo Springs, which puts guests next to a wildlife-rich savanna. Or sleep under the stars in one of the four Elewana Loisaba Star Beds, where rooms on raised platforms are only partially covered by thatching, and four-poster beds on wheels can be rolled out under the night sky.
Jennifer Flowers is an award-winning journalist and the senior deputy editor of AFAR.