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Mother and son white rhino drinking from a stream.

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Evidence Nkuna has the best view from his tracker’s seat.

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A giraffe in the bush.

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A female leopard with her kill.

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Singita’s canine anti-poaching unit.

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Head guide Chantelle Venter.

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A herd of elephants heading towards water.

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Singita guide Brian Rode does what he loves.

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Singita Lebombo’s community culinary school.

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An African sunset.

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A lioness roars.

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A zebra staring from a safe distance.

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A saltwater pool at Singita Lebombo.

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A view from the villa.

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Lebombo’s lobby bar.

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Saddlebilled storks.

Cry Of The Wild

At Singita's luxury lodges in Kruger National Park, you get a close up view of the Big Five and an unforgettable lesson on wildlife conservation
May 24, 2019 5:50 AM

THE MOTHER-AND-son rhinos approach us.

Mild curiosity on their gentle horned faces, tough leathery hides brushing against the thicket of Savannah grasslands in South Africa’s massive Kruger National Park.

“Hello there, Mama, aren’t you beautiful, yeah you are,” coos veteran guide Brian Rode from the driver’s seat of our Land Rover. The gentle tone sounds odd, coming from an ex-Special Forces soldier with appropriately grizzled features and gruff steeliness under his hospitality-trained demeanour.

Mama rhino comes closer, within petting distance of Brian’s partner Evidence Nkuna, who sits exposed in his tracker’s seat at the front of the jeep. But she doesn’t stop for an ear tickle – nor should anyone try – ambling past us with her young ‘un towards a nearby stream.

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“Animals respond to the tone of your voice,” explains Brian as we sit gobsmacked by our encounter with the endangered animal. “They know we’re not a threat.”

But this Mama rhino is especially tame, and recognises Brian and Evidence from previous drives. Except that here in the wild, a trusting disposition is like a death warrant for a rhino, at the hands of its greatest predator – Man.

Working with nature

For the first-timer, the ‘park’ in National Kruger Park may lull you into a false sense of security that this is a very large zoo 30 times bigger than Singapore, filled with free-roaming wildlife that are somehow trained to not eat humans who have spent a lot of money on a safari to see them up close.

The rifle sitting within Brian’s easy reach will tell you otherwise...

If the animals seem unfazed by humans’ presence in the park, it’s due to long cultivated ‘relationships’. A wildlife etiquette, if you like – don’t chase them with the jeeps; keep a respectful distance; be quiet and above all, prove that you’re not a threat, so they see you as just some weird, nosy animal on four wheels.

We’re in the 150 sq km of Kruger Park – a pizza slice of its 19,500 sq km entirety – that are private for guests of the luxury Singita Lebombo and Sweni lodges, where we are staying. Such exclusivity means no convoys of vehicles racing to a site whenever an animal is spotted – at most two or three jeeps, all cautious in their approach. Even then, it’s mostly just our vehicle cruising as Brian and Evidence – with earpieces and superhuman vision – take us from one natural wonder to another.

Yet it’s not just about seeing animals up close but being involved in their conservation that makes Singita stand out in experiential travel operator Scott Dunn’s curated itineraries that immerse you in the full South African experience.

Conservation company first and hospitality second – not the other way around – Singita’s string of lodges across Africa generate the revenue to fund the wildlife preservation and community engagement goals of its founder Luke Bailes, a passionate environmentalist.

So while taking lodge guests around the park is part of Brian’s and Evidence’s day job, they play a larger role as wildlife custodians – their work in tracking animals making them the perfect eyes and ears for  Kruger’s rangers and the South African army who patrol the border of the park and Mozambique to weed out opportunistic poachers.

Plight of the rhinoceros

Brian casts a worried look at the sky, where the moon is already visible in the late afternoon. It’s a three-quarter moon, and it will be full in a couple of days, he says. That’s when the poachers are the most active, using the moonlight to hunt down the short-sighted rhinos for their horns to feed an insatiable and lucrative black market.

With rhino horns going for more than US$60,000 a kilo – more expensive than cocaine or gold – Kruger Park is a hotbed of poaching in South Africa. There are roughly 7000 white rhinos here – almost half of the species’ entire population in the world. Even then, their numbers have been dwindling drastically, and black rhinos even more so, with sightings of them nearly impossible.

It’s a deadly circle that fuels the rhino horn business: strong demand from rich Asians who believe rhino horn cures everything from migraines to cancer; violent organised crime syndicates which supply them; and impoverished poachers from Mozambique who will risk being shot by rangers or attacked by other animals for the lucrative rewards awaiting them.

While the reality is that desperate poverty drives the poachers, Brian has seen the devastating effects of their cruelty.

“These guys are not hunters or soldiers – they don’t shoot well and they injure the rhinos badly,” he says. “There was a female rhino here last year and we could see she had two bullet holes in her. She survived, but one of the wounds was oozing pus. We alerted the park rangers but as she seemed to be healing – it was more risky to tranquilise her because of possible adverse reactions to the drugs –  they left her alone. But we never saw her again.”

Three years ago, he and his guests on a game drive were struggling to find a rhino when they finally spotted one running in the distance. When they got close enough, they were horrified to find that her face had been cut off.  “They had shot her and she was unconscious when they cut her whole face off. We could see she was healing, but it was really itchy because she was scratching her face against the trees and it was all cut up and bleeding.” He believes she would have survived, “but it’s just horrible”.

What people don’t realise is that rhino horns are full of keratin – exactly the same substance found in fingernails, with zero medicinal value. But demand hasn’t diminished, not with the growing affluent middle class mainly in China and Vietnam, who see rhino horns as both miracle cure and status symbol. In fact, Kruger saw an especially high spike in poaching cases between 2008 and 2012, when a well-known Vietnamese politician made the wild claim that rhino horn cured his cancer.

A new hope

The solution is a long, arduous road ahead but they are starting to see some progress, says Chantelle Venter, the head guide at Singita Lebombo. “We’re getting more arrests, but the real solution is education – for the people who do the deed, and the end-user. The people in the middle (the syndicates) – they’re the greedy ones.”

Chantelle oversees the lodge’s guides and trackers as well as a small security team, doubling as the main liaison between the lodge, the park’s rangers and the military – South African National Defence Forces.

“If we detect poachers’ tracks, we will radio the section ranger. I can also contact the relevant people in Mozambique so we can triangulate the area that the poacher is in.”

As the lodge is in the national park, they cannot be involved in actually catching the poachers – “with everyone carrying guns, the wrong people might get shot”. So they support in other ways, for example, dragging the roads every day to clear both animal and vehicle tracks so they can tell if poachers come into the vicinity.

“But they’re very clever,” says Chantelle. “Sometimes they throw their jackets on the ground and walk on them, or they walk on sticks, walk backwards, change their shoes and so on. But the road is so wide that you can’t cross it without making a mark.”

Even if they can’t interfere with the security forces in Kruger, Singita is free to do so at its Ebony and Boulders lodges in Sabi Sands, which sits on land privately owned by Mr Bailes.

That’s where Singita maintains its own security forces, including a canine anti-poaching unit, which dispatches aggressive Belgian malinois and bloodhounds to sniff out perpetrators on the run.

Singita’s rhino efforts across Africa are paying off. In Tanzania, it’s involved in re-introducing black rhinos into the Serengeti; Zimbabwe has a very effective canine anti-poaching unit with a high arrest rate; and Singita Pamushana boasts one of the highest concentrations of black rhinos, thanks to successful anti-poaching and relocation. And their work doesn’t stop at rhinos, says Chantelle, but all wildlife at risk, from obvious targets like lions and elephants to “less cute and cuddly” snakes, vultures or crocodiles that support the entire natural ecosystem.

Reaching out

Lately, Mr Bailes – hailed as the Nelson Mandela of conservation – has teamed up with like-minded philanthropists and conservation companies to acquire 160,000 hectares of land along the southern border of Singita’s park concession, in Mozambique itself, called the Karingani Reserve. The land effectively pushes poachers further away from Kruger, acting as a buffer between them and the animals, says Chantelle. At the same time, it expands Singita’s private concession as wildlife can eventually continue into Karingani. “If the land wasn’t acquired, it could have been used for mining or farming and the vegetation would be gone. But if you preserve the vegetation, you can always add more animals.”

Animal welfare aside, community outreach programmes by Singita are also in place, says Morris Ngwenyama, its Community Partnership Project Manager.  Besides training and employing staff from the local community – 80 to 90 per cent of the lodge’s employees are from surrounding villages outside the park – Singita’s projects include a culinary school and support for pre-school children.

“A lot of it is about ownership,” Morris explains. About giving locals a stake in their environment and showing them how they can benefit socially and economically by protecting it. They’ve already seen it work in the community around Kruger, which rarely has cases of poachers, and he sees it working in Mozambique as well. “If you give them alternatives – education, jobs, skills – they will have a vested interest in protecting the environment, not killing it.”

Joys of being wild

Chantelle points to the growing ‘woke’-fulness of a generation that is more self-aware – the ones who recycle and worship Marie Kondo and Stella McCartney – as a positive step for wildlife conservation. With more people concerned about the environment, the more they want to see animals preserved in their natural habitat.

You get all that and more at Singita Lebombo without having to sacrifice any creature comforts either. Apart from the luxurious trappings of the lodge that include all-day fine dining, a wide range of South African wines and a jaw-dropping view of the N’wanetsi River from your villa which teems with hippos and crocodiles - there are twice daily game drives around Singita’s private concession with plentiful wildlife to spy on.

Hordes of impala make their presence felt and heard, thanks to the perpetually horny males letting rip with guttural snorting sounds as they try to make out with a bunch of females who tease and deflect them at every turn.

So intent are they at this mating game that one of them is totally oblivious to the female leopard in a tree above him, leisurely dining on one of his brethren, draped over a branch with legs and head hanging like the handiwork of a messy butcher.

Leopards are not that common a sight in Kruger but we luck out with two sightings - another of a male leopard with a fresh kill at his feet. But even the magnificent cat is not without his own fears - this time from cheetahs or hyenas which might try to steal his kill. A hand-over-mouth experience is watching the large feline picking up a carcass weighing almost half his body weight with his powerful jaws, and climbing up a tree with it, safe from scavengers which can’t climb as well as he.

Equally entertaining is Brian’s wry commentary. “That would have brought tears to his eyes,” he deadpans as a large elephant lets loose with a mother lode of dung right in front of us; or an observation of a buffalo shuffling through the bush - “hey buddy, your testicles are so big you’re going to stand on them”. Although the massive creature glares in return, he and his herd generally ignore us.

Even a lazy lion takes little notice, lolling on his side for a nap as a pride of lionesses relax nearby. He even has a name - Xihamham - said to be a Casanova who likes to hang around with the women and won’t help his brothers fight off other males that might threaten them. In fact, they’re in an area dominated by another pride, so it won’t be long before he has to get moving.

We continue to tick off our checklist: Wildebeest scooting by in the distance; water bucks shaking their white-ringed bums at us; a convention of hippos - heads slightly above water, showing their displeasure with their mouths wide open and grunting; giraffes chewing the cud; an extended family of over 20 elephants including irresistible babies heading for a bath; zebras rolling happily in the dusty brush... this is life - living, breathing, potentially dangerous but completely breathtaking.

It's out here that you understand what drives Brian, Evidence, Chantelle and all the others - you too, want to keep the animals safe, no matter what.

On our last morning drive - shrouded with thick fog and shivering cold temperatures –  we see a tracker from the lodge, blocking the road with his truck. He’s soon joined by park rangers. Our hearts sink. It was a full moon the night before, and they’ve spotted poachers’ tracks.

Our thoughts go immediately to Mama rhino and her son. We hope they’re safe. Singita means ‘a place of miracles’  – so we know they’ll do everything they can.

  • The writer was a guest of Singita Lebombo and travel operator Scott Dunn. For bookings or more information go to www.scottdunn.com or call 3165-4050. For more information on Singita, go to www.singita.com