White Rhino Research Update – Nov 2011

The fieldwork for the rhino project has begun. I am collecting samples from various females that range freely in a nature reserve in South Africa. Every day I go out into the field with my 4×4 vehicle to search for the rhinos. Often this includes following them on foot, tracing their footprints. Once I found them I will observe them quietly, not disturbing the animals. The observation involves monitoring social behaviour, group structures, browsing choices and of course the collection of fresh faecal samples to characterize their hormone profiles. Now that I have been tracking the animals for a couple of months I start to understand their migration patterns. Often I can predict where I’ll find them in the morning based on their movements the day before, which is of course a great benefit for this type of fieldwork. On the picture to the right you can see one of the females with her 14 months old calf. This specific rhino is very interesting to me, because she might soon be fertile again, the period in their reproductive life that I am most interested in at the moment.
In September, a student came over from the University of Stellenbosch, Ms.Tayla Tucker, to help me for 2 months. She has been a great help in the field and this has been an excellent opportunity for her to get acquainted with working in the field and learn more about the daily hurdles and triumphs of a researcher in the field.
Summer is starting in South Africa, which means that the rains have arrived and everything is getting green. It also means that the bush is getting thicker which makes it more difficult to spot the rhinos. The experience is also that home ranges of the rhinos increase during the rainy season, having more choices of where to find fresh grass. I will however proceed the collection of samples during summer with in the planning a period of lab work early next year to analyse the first batch of samples collected. I will be doing this in the Endocrine Research Laboratory at Onderstepoort.
There are some hopeful expectations of new baby rhinos arriving in the reserve! Two females here, whose calves are both around the 2.5 years old, show big bellies. Both of these females have been pregnant regularly. Normally, mothers chase away their older calves as soon as a new calf is born. The older calf will then try to find another youngster to form a group with. White rhinos are extremely social animals, and you will normally see them grouped with at least one other rhino. An exception is the dominant bull, which walks for miles every day by himself to mark his territory and to check on his females.