When Reality Strikes

For the past month, I have been exploring a vast and endless landscape that has taken my breath away multiple times. And it undoubtedly will continue to do so. I am referring to the beautiful Singita Grumeti Game Reserve in the Western Corridor of the Serengeti in Tanzania.

At this game reserve, I recently had the pleasure of spending several days with a very likable family of four. While the parents had been on safari before, it was the first safari experience for their 4-year old twin daughters. The girls were keen to see their favorite animals: hippos and rhinos.

Hippos are relatively common animals in the Serengeti and can be found in most permanent water sources. On our first afternoon drive, we stopped at Sasakwa dam and were treated to a beautiful view of a few hippos resting in the water. This wonderful sighting of a few hippos made one of the daughters rejoice.

However, the other daughter, while happy to see hippos, was unsatisfied. She still wanted to see rhinos.

Seeing a rhino would be a remote possibility. The only chance that we stood of seeing a rhino would occur when driving along the boundary of a 270-hectare enclosure that serves as the Grumeti Fund’s rhino sanctuary within the Grumeti Reserve. This rhino sanctuary is home to only two East African Black Rhinos — their names are Laikipia (a rhino cow) and Eric (a rhino bull).

Laikipia was translocated to this sanctuary in 2007, and because she has already adapted to this environment, she is able to wander throughout the entire 270-hectare enclosure. But Eric arrived to this sanctuary only in September 2018, as a gift from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. (To see the epic, 68-hour journey of Eric the 2,550-pound rhino — from California, USA, to Grumeti, Tanzania — check out the video at the end of this article.)

Given that Eric was still adapting to his new home, he was being closely monitored in a smaller enclosure within the sanctuary. As such, Laikipia was the only rhino that we stood a very, very slim chance of seeing along the boundary.

A few days went by and, unsurprisingly, we did not come across her.

On the last morning of the family’s stay, the father was walking with his daughters near the front of the lodge. At one point, he led them toward a rhino … or rather a life-sized statue of a rhino. Both girls struck a pose, and the father snapped a few photos of them with the “rhino.”

I watched silently and contemplated the bleak situation that so poignantly played out before my eyes. At this point, it hit me. Hard.

During their first trip to Africa, two young girls walk with their father to experience their only rhino sighting.

During their first trip to Africa, two young girls walk with their father to experience their only rhino sighting.

Rhinos — specifically the East African Black Rhinoceroses (Diceros bicornis michaeli) — used to be abundant in the Serengeti ecosystem, with an estimated population of about 3000. Today, there are only about 80 of these rhinos in Tanzania and around 750 across all of East Africa. Following the intensive poaching that began in the 1970s and 1980s, these magnificent, prehistoric-looking animals became nearly extinct.

To think that this is what the rhino situation has become due to poaching and greed is terribly depressing.

Fortunately though, not all is lost. Conservation initiatives offer hope, such as those by the Grumeti Fund, which is working to repopulate rhinos in the Serengeti wilderness and to heavily monitor and protect rhinos in their natural habitat. According to Grant Burden, Head of Special Projects for the organization, “Rhino populations have crashed before in Africa, but they’ve survived, and recovered, because of people who do something about the problem. We are confident we can do it again here in the Serengeti.”

Although the Black Rhino statue at the entrance of Sasakwa lodge is impressive, it is still only an inanimate replica.

Although the Black Rhino statue at the entrance of Sasakwa lodge is impressive, it is still only an inanimate replica.


This 6-minute video shows the epic journey of Eric the rhino from the U.S. to Tanzania.