Tracking Black Rhino in Liwonde National Park in Malawi
The history of black rhino in Liwonde
In the late 1980s the last black rhino disappeared from Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve (in the extreme SW of Malawi) and the species became extinct in Malawi. In 1993, the first pair of black rhino were airlifted into a fenced sanctuary within Liwonde NP. Their names were Justerini and Brooks and they, along with several other rhinos that followed them, would be part of one of the most successful black rhino breeding programmes in Africa. The final stage in this conservation success story was to bring down the sanctuary’s fence so that Liwonde park itself becomes the “sanctuary”. Enlarging the sanctuary in this way means continued monitoring of the black rhino is increasingly important.
The charms and challenges of tracking rhino in the bush
The tracking walk begins either at dawn or in mid-afternoon and is conducted by two teams, each consisting of two armed Rhino Protection Team (RPT) scouts and two guests. Each team is dropped off at different points to cover as much territory as possible.
The rainy, or “green season” (November to May) as we like to call it, is one of the most exciting and scenic times of the year top trek, but it unleashes the toughest conditions: the vegetation is flourishing, the bush is thick and trails are filled with pools and muddy puddles but fresh tracks are easier to find and can be measured and followed with ease.
“As we embarked on our first walk through the dense thicket, the sounds, colours and details of the bush came alive. Although we were tracking rhino, I couldn’t help noticing the multitude of dragonflies, butterflies and more exotic insects that crossed our path. Bushpigs grunted in the distance, impala darted across the sandy roads and a very healthy looking herd of zebra majestically galloped away at the sound of our footsteps. Rhinos are spooked by human voices but less so by sounds of animals, so RPT scouts communicate with each other with grunts! It wasn’t long before we reached several middens (areas where rhinos defecate to mark their territory) and as we walked deeper into the bush we heard a pod of hippos in the Shire river honking and two eagle owls hooting to one. The Liwonde bush was alive!
Our trackers stopped to show us other signs of the rhinos’ presence and explain other key elements of their behaviour and habits. We were shown how to look for signs of browsing, how to identify resting places and rubbing posts which are trees or branches the rhino regularly scratches against.”
The story of the black rhino in Malawi is part of a great triumph in conservation; from being a species that died out it has re-emerged and the population is slowly being restored. This trek is significant because it blends aspects of Commerce, Conservation, Community and Culture – the four C’s – that are the principles of sustainable safaris. The rhino trek creates a dynamic, engaging and educational activity that makes a genuine difference to the conservation of black rhino in Malawi.
The trek was launched on 8th April 2012 and costs USD 40 per person (£30) for either a dawn or dusk trek. It lasts about 3 hours and ends with either a bush breakfast or bush supper. 90% goes to IFAW to ensure the continued monitoring of the black rhino in Liwonde at a critical stage in the development of rhino conservation.
To enjoy this amazing unique experience you must be staying at the Mvuu Lodge or Camp.
Mvuu Camp in Liwonde National Park is a four-hour drive from Lilongwe airport, the gateway to Malawi. Guests at the Camp or Lodge can join guides to track black rhino in the wild and learn about this critically endangered species whilst getting involved in the process of monitoring them and contributing to their protection. The trek is part of efforts to set up a sustainable funding method for rhino conservation. 90% of proceeds will go to The International Fund for Endangered Wildlife (IFAW) to maintain the programme.
Mvuu Camp overlooks a broad stretch of the Shire River (pronounced Shiree), with a profusion of hippos, crocodiles and the amazing birdlife of the Liwonde National Park.
Mvuu Camp is a clever mix of stone and canvas chalets with an impressive thatched dining and lounge area situated nearby, offering a magnificent vista of the Shire River. Dinners are sometimes held under the stars in a specially constructed boma.
Additional Activities at Mvuu Camp include boating trips on the Shire River and game drives (morning and afternoon/evening). Nature walks and bike rides are also incredibly popular.
Enthusiasts will be able to participate in virtually non-stop birding around Mvuu Camp.
Liwonde National Park
Liwonde was proclaimed as a National Park in 1973 is considered the most prolific wildlife area in Malawi, despite its size – only 548km2.
Named after Chief Liwonde who had championed its protection, the Liwonde National Park harbours very diverse landscapes. Relatively dry mopane woodlands cover the eastern half of the Park where they are interspersed with unworldly candelabra trees, while patches of miombo woodland occur on the limited hill slopes in the south and east. Palm savannah and numerous baobabs abut the extensive floodplains of the Shire River where dense riverine vegetation adds a tropical feel to the habitat.
Liwonde National Park is home to the largest remaining elephant population in Malawi.. Liwonde National Park also boasts large numbers of impala, reedbuck, waterbuck, warthog and the majestic sable – which is rare anywhere else in Africa today.
Kudu and impala, together with sable herds, haunt the woodlands beyond the floodplain, while yellow baboon entertain with their social antics.
Buffalo, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, zebra, roan and eland were historically hunted to extinction in the area, but have since been introduced into what is known as The Sanctuary – a substantial 4,000ha fenced area within Liwonde National Park that serves as a reservoir for rare species. It is here that Liwonde’s black rhino find refuge too. A dense population of hippo can be found in the Shire River and monstrous Nile crocodile are found lazing on the sandbanks.
The birdlife here is prolific – probably the best year-round birding in Southern Africa. Over 300 of the country’s 650 bird species occur in the Liwonde National Park.