Running with Rhinos: Stories from a Radical Conservationist

Running with Rhinos: Stories from a Radical Conservationist

by Ed Warner


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Running with Rhinos: Stories from a Radical Conservationist by Ed Warner

“Running with rhinos” is not a euphemism—not when you’re ground support for the International Rhino Foundation’s Rhino Conservancy Project.

Edward M. Warner, a self-proclaimed radical conservationist, presents his outrageous adventures from more than a decade of collaboration with the veterinarians and biologists who care for endangered rhinos in Africa. Few, if any, laymen like Warner have been invited to do what amounts to some of the most dangerous volunteer fieldwork around.

Fewer than five thousand black rhinos remain in the wilds of sub-Saharan Africa. About five hundred live on private conservancies in Zimbabwe. For Warner, working on the frontlines of rhino conservation not only allowed him to help rhinos, it gave him the opportunity to pursue and refine his emerging philosophy of radical conservationism, to cultivate partnerships between local communities and private landowners in Africa, and to export the lessons about land and wildlife management back home to the United States.

In Running with Rhinos: Stories from a Radical Conservationist, Warner takes readers along as he weasels his way into becoming volunteer ground support for the International Rhino Foundation’s Rhino Conservancy Project, or “Rhino Ops,” in Zimbabwe. It is gritty, sweaty, sometimes scary, and exhilarating work. Warner succeeds in telling a remarkable story of the extraordinary bonds between humans—and their dedication to protecting endangered animals—all while weaving eye-opening stories about the flora, fauna, geology, geography, and politics of sub-Saharan Africa.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626342279
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ed Warner is a noted philanthropist and conservationist. In his career as an exploration geologist, he discovered and participated in development of the Jonah/Pinedale Fields, the third largest natural gas accumulation in US history. Since leaving the natural gas business in 2000, he has pursued philanthropy full-time.

Dr. Warner earned a BS from Colorado State University, an MS from UCLA, and an honorary doctorate from Colorado State. In 2005, Colorado State named the College of Natural Resources after Ed. He has lectured on geology and cooperative conservation at numerous universities. He also writes book reviews for the Denver based Bloomsbury Review.

Currently, Dr. Warner is a Trustee of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and a Director of the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and the Sand County Foundation. His previous service includes having been a Trustee of the Geological Society of America Foundation and the American Geological Institute Foundation.

Read an Excerpt

Running with Rhinos

Stories from a Radical Conservationist

By Edward M. Warner

Greenleaf Book Group Press

Copyright © 2016 Edward M. Warner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62634-227-9


Into Africa

A WEEK AFTER MEETING KARL Hess, he and I stepped off the plane after twenty-one hours in the air and passed through immigration and customs at Harare International Airport, Zimbabwe. The next morning we attended a meeting at SARPO headquarters facilitated by a tall, rangy, big-nosed fellow who placed little post-it-like notes with words or short phrases on them on a whiteboard. Mike Jones, the big-nosed fellow, was a sight more interesting than the meeting he was running.

Mike, now a consultant, had been a National Parks ranger during the Rhodesian Bush War (1964–1979), in which Black Nationalist rebel groups fought to overturn the minority white government. On February 13, 1975, Mike stepped on an antipersonnel mine — likely buried by the nationalist army — at a campsite in Mana Pools National Park. He instantly earned membership in the "One Legged Corps" of amputees. Really — I'm not making it up — there is such a club. Mike lost his right leg, almost lost his right arm, and suffered damage to his back, as well. After knowing him for a couple of years, Jackie nicknamed him "Africa's John Wayne." Mike Jones is one tough bugger and we hit it off immediately.

* * *

Jackie and I visited Mana Pools on our first trip to Africa as tourists in 1999. We stayed at a fly camp on the banks of the Zambezi. Our first evening, we were entranced by the prospect of dinner around a huge hewn-log table, which was pieced together and fitted around an enormous African teak tree. The table was illuminated by a wrought iron candelabra hung from a branch of the tree.

Mana Pools is possibly the most beautiful of Zimbabwe's national parks and home to an incredible diversity of birds and mammals. The western boundary is the lower Zambezi River, so the park stretches across riparian habitat into wetlands, savanna, and mopane forest.

Prior to heading out on a walking safari our first morning, the camp director warned us of a potential problem: "Last week, an elephant stomped a villager to death. The old lady tried to chase the elephant out of her maize field and it killed her. National Parks rangers then found an elephant and shot it with a Holland & Holland .375 magnum rifle. It may not have been the offending elephant but that's the typical park policy when it comes to 'problem' elephants. The last few days, we've noticed that the elephants have been especially aggressive around people."

Well, that'll get you excited for your safari!

Sure enough, about an hour into our walk, we encountered three tuskless elephants: a cow, her calf, and an auntie walking single file. There were seven of us: our guide in front, a National Parks ranger with his trusty H & H rifle, four guests including me and Jackie, and the guy loaded with tea and cakes bringing up the rear.

I had read somewhere that tuskless elephants, tuskless due to an evolutionary response to poaching, are more dangerous than normal. Elephants use their tusks to dig up food and to defend themselves, so without tusks, they tend to exhibit extra aggression. A tuskless mother who has been "informed" of a death in her family could be expected to be exceedingly on edge.

As I focused in on the cow with my binoculars, I felt a singular shock: Her trunk looked as if it had been caught in a snare and severely injured. Think about the most sensitive part of your body, tighten a wire snare around it, and you get the idea. Just as I began to wonder what to do if the elephant charged, she slowed to a halt. She reached down and plucked up a wad of yellow grass, waved it in front of her to dust it off, and put it up to her mouth. Imagine my astonishment as I then saw her throw it to the ground in what looked like a fit of anger.

Her head was turned to look over her shoulder at our group and I could clearly see her eyeball looking our way. She reached down again and repeated the behavior. I was just starting to think uh, oh, when she spun around and flat-out charged our group. I was about to turn tail and run, expecting to hear the gunshot any second, when what I heard sounded like loud claps. Whack! Whack! Instead of aiming the rifle at the cow, the guide and the ranger were "applauding" her! She slid to a halt, raised her trunk into the air, trumpeted a tremendous scream, flapped her ears a couple of times, and nonchalantly walked off. What an introduction to elephant behavior!

We canoed the Zambezi on our second day. Trust me, it's not an amateur paddle. I'll remember not to brag about my canoeing expertise the next time I canoe a wild African river. Between the hippos and the crocodiles, being alert is more a mandate than it is a suggestion. Every pair had a guide in their canoe except Jackie and me. We had years of wilderness and white-water canoeing experience. But, unlike canoeing a river in North America, you have to work along the shallows of the Zambezi. If, God forbid, you have to cross a deep pool, be prepared to paddle like a maniac. Just in case, you see, there are hippos resting on the river bottom.

We could approach the animals drinking along the riverbank, from baboons to elephants, very safely via canoe. They didn't seem to mind us like they would if we were on foot. Even the enormous Nile crocodiles sleeping on the sandbars, some longer than sixteen feet, could be approached with relative safety. But not the hippos: Approach anything except hippos, we were advised. Hippos will charge boats and smash them to bits. If that doesn't spoil your day, being torn apart by those enormous hippo incisors will, let me tell you. We safely avoided any hippo run-ins, and it was a magical day.

On our third morning, the camp manager met us at breakfast. "Ed and Jackie, would it be okay if David led you on a walk? It will be his first and you will have the support of a licensed guide." David was a young college student from England working the summer as a safari company intern. We happily agreed.

David may have been a "novice guide," but he was a terrific birder and a charming young man. We had a lovely walk and, with the help of the regular safari guide, James, we must have identified at least fifty species of birds. We left by charter airplane the next day for the Luangwa Valley in northern Zambia where we concluded our first African safari.

Two weeks later, back home in Denver, I opened the Denver Post, our local newspaper. There was a small column in the "International News" section, just about an inch long with the headline, "British Student Killed by Lion." The unnamed student was killed in the middle of the night in Matusadona National Park. My heart sank to my boots. I can't say why, but I knew instinctively that it was David. Had he told us he was going to Matusadona on his days off? I couldn't be sure. What I was sure of in that moment is that it was David who had been killed. I was so sure that I cut the article out of the paper to prevent Jackie from seeing it.

Around 11 a.m. that morning the landline rang. It was Karen Cock-burn of the Africa Travel Centre in Boulder.

"Ed, do you remember a young British student named David who was working at Mana Pools?" she asked.

Oh, shit, I thought.

Karen continued, "He was killed a few days ago while camping in Matusadona. If you have any photographs of him, his parents would be very grateful."

I got their address in England, wrote a letter describing our experience with their son, and sent them copies of the photos.

Several years later, while staying in Clive Stockil's safari lodge on the Save (pronounced Sa-Vey)Valley Conservancy, I met Clive's camp manager, who was also the wife of a professional hunter. At dinner, Clive mentioned the woman's husband, Brad.

"Do you know," he asked, "about the incident that lost Brad his safari license? He was guiding a group of young people in Matusadona in 1999. That year the lions were starving due to the high water flooding Lake Kariba that drove off the game. A pride of lions got into camp one night and dragged a British student out of his tent, killed him, and ate him."

The police report found a lioness's incisor on the cot in David's tent. She must have grabbed him and dragged him out of bed and then the rest of the pride descended on him just like they would any other prey animal.

"Clive," I replied, "Jackie and I spent three days with David a couple of weeks before that incident."

Clive looked at me with amazement. "It was a no-win situation. Brad had a choice of rounding up the rest of the clients to get them inside the vehicles, or start shooting lions."

David was already dead, having been torn apart immediately, so Brad chose not to kill the lions.

"Frankly," Clive offered, "Brad did the right thing. No matter what happened next, the government would take away his safari guide license. So today he's a professional hunter."

On the drive back to Harare a week later, Brad sat next to me in the rear of the Toyota. For five hours I wanted to ask him his side of that story. I didn't have the stones to bring it up.


WWF and the Rhino Conservancy Project

THE MEETING AT WWF WAS boring as hell. After an hour I found myself whispering jokes to the Zimbo biologist sitting next to me. He was either very good at stifling his laughter or my comedy act was not working. Eventually we were saved by the bell: teatime. Thank God for the British Empire.

We were escorted to the garden, where every member of the WWF staff was gathered, tiny teacups balanced delicately in their big hands. I wandered around meeting and greeting. In front of a fountain, along one corner of the property, I overheard a conversation about "Rhino Ops." I walked right over and introduced myself!

* * *

When Jackie and I had been in Zimbabwe in 1999, I met Russell Gammon, a safari guide, and convinced him to take me with him as he tracked black rhinos on foot. Russell, an enormous, redheaded Zimbabwean of Scottish descent, took two entire days to decide that I could be trusted not to get us killed; more importantly, I had to prove to him that I could climb a tree. Believe it or not, that's a serious requirement of tracking rhinos. The last thing a safari guide wants is to be forced to shoot an endangered rhino because of the stupidity of a mzungu (Swahili for stupid white man, or so I've been told by a Maasai friend).

Black rhinos are crazy dangerous. You can never tell what they will do next. If there's a possibility of a charge you must be able to get out of the way. Outrunning them is not an option. Rhinos run faster. The only safe course is to climb a tree.

My opportunity finally arose at breakfast on our third morning at the camp. The three other guests, a professor from Chicago and her two female students, decided to spend the morning in camp before departing in the afternoon.

As I was thinking to myself, Thank you, God, Jackie, who has better intuition than anyone else I know, said, "I think I'll stay behind as well. I'd like to paint. Russell, why don't you and Ed go off?"

I turned to Russell. "Please take me tracking rhinos, Russell. Whatever happens, I don't want you to shoot a rhino. I'll take my chances." I think that finally wore him down.

We were driven over to the Tashinga Peninsula in Lake Kariba, on the northeast end of Matusadona National Park, by motorboat. I had my Minolta binoculars and my point-and-shoot camera; Russell carried his 500 Nitro Express big-bore hunting cartridges, his rifle, a backpack, and Zeiss binoculars. We each carried our tools with ease.

Within minutes of being ashore we found the spoor of a black rhino. Russell tested the wind with a little spray bottle filled with talcum powder. My adrenaline rushed. We crept forward slowly.

The countryside where we were tracking was mostly mopane forest with an understory of various acacia varieties. Mopane means butterfly in the Bantu language of the Shona people. The leaves, resembling butterfly wings, open in the early morning and close when the sun gets too hot, regulating their water loss in the semiarid environment. Incredibly, mopane also respond to overgrazing by animals, like elephants, by pumping tannic acid into their branches and leaves, making them less palatable. Mopanes are not bad trees to be around, but you've got to watch out for the acacia called the "wait a bit" or "buffalo thorn," hiding in its understory. If the wait a bit thorns hook you, you must carefully pull them apart and away from you or they will slice through your skin as easily as a filleting knife.

After walking for about fifteen minutes we stopped. Russell pulled out what can only be described in my vocabulary as a bowie knife. He proceeded to cut a half-dozen mopane branches and stick them into my belt.

"Little bit of camouflage can't but help," he said, as he filled in the space to the left and right of my prized Philmont Scout Ranch belt buckle.

We crept forward. I was certain I could hear a rhino chewing. Black rhinos are browsers. Their molars shear instead of grind and I'd become familiar with the sound of their chewing while walking with baby rhinos at the Tashinga nursery two days earlier.

We peeked around the corner of a huge African teak tree. There, not more than twenty-five meters away, was the largest bull elephant I will surely ever see in my life. This tembo (Swahili for elephant) had enormous tusks that curved downward and toward each other, reminding me of the wooly mammoth painting I had seen in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. I was transfixed. After not more than a minute, the bull flapped his ears, trumpeted, and walked off.

"Eighty pounders or better," Russell whispered, marveling at the elephant's enormous tusks.

Hmm, I thought. I swear I heard a rhino chewing. My imagination must be too active. Better focus on what is real!

We crossed the airstrip and walked into the rhino nursery camp. Airstrips in the bush are simply flat strips of land, cleared of trees. Game really love them, so when preparing to land, the pilot must first buzz the airstrip to make sure no animals are grazing, then circle back around to land. The Tashinga airstrip that we crossed is the only access to the Kariba Lodge. Joseph, the head warden, greeted us. After exchanging brief pleasantries in English, Joseph and Russell switched to Shona. Joseph seemed agitated. Russell signaled to me and we walked off.

"What's going on?" I inquired.

"A big bull got in among the babies as they were feeding this morning. The game scouts have spent all morning up in the trees."

"The warden didn't want to tell you where they are, right?"

"I winkled it out of him. We're headed in that direction. All I ask of you, Ed, is that you follow my directions without question."

I gotta tell you, nothing could have stirred up my blood faster than Russell's matter-of-fact instructions.

We walked at a moderate pace in a straight line, as if Russell really knew where we'd find the big black bull.

After about half a mile, we slowed way down. All of a sudden, a huge head crowned by a magnificent horn rose up over an acacia bush and turned our way. I had him sighted in my binoculars — he was maybe seventy-five meters ahead of us. Behind him, I could see movement: the calves!

I started to consider that tree. The rhino had heard us and appeared to be upset. His ears, turning independently like radar units, were so clear in my binoculars that I could see their black fringes of hair. He couldn't see us or smell us — we had the wind — but he clearly sensed something was amiss and was skittish.

All of a sudden he charged! The bull was there one second and gone the next in a cloud of dust, charging at a right angle to our position. I must have held my breath for more than a minute. Just as I let it out, he trotted back to the acacia and turned toward us again. His ears began casting this way and that, trying to locate the interlopers he knew were somewhere nearby. With a big old snort, he charged again! Only this time he charged away from us. I let out another breath and he trotted back for another go.


Excerpted from Running with Rhinos by Edward M. Warner. Copyright © 2016 Edward M. Warner. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Into Africa,
2 WWF and the Rhino Conservancy Project,
3 Sand County Foundation,
4 A Long Way from Anywhere,
5 On the Road with Russell,
6 The Gwayi,
7 Gonarezhou National Park and the Southeast Lowveld,
8 The Save Valley Conservancy,
9 The 18-Karat Rolex,
10 On the Road in Namibia,
11 Back to Senuko Ranch,
12 The Geriatric Fire Brigade,
13 Mountain Biking in the Bush,
14 Broken Down in Gonarezhou,
15 How to Jet-Wash a Rhino,
16 Hallucinating a Peace Parks Meeting,
17 My Olympian Caretaker,
18 To Hell with Oaths,
19 Camping Out on Tasha's Front Lawn,
20 R unning with Rhinos,
21 Romeo Hotel,
22 Whiskey Delta and Wild Dogs,
23 Lions, Lions, Everywhere,
24 The Definition of a Great Adventure,
Author Q & A,

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