Photographing Rhinos at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Uganda
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
Mother and calf, strolling down the road.
If you are in Uganda, don’t miss the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary!
If you are interested in photographing rhinos then this is for you. Some three hours north of Kampala, on the main road to Murchison Falls National Park, you will see a sign for the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. You can’t miss it, because it is next to two life-size psychedelic rhino statues. Turn left onto a narrow dirt track and after several kilometres through dense bush you come to the Sanctuary gate. Several more kilometres and you reach the headquarters of the Rhino Fund Uganda and the lodge.
Along the way there are numerous signs warning you to beware of rhinos and antelope crossing the road. During the short drive you are likely to see bushbuck at the roadside. Sometimes rangers will stop you and ask you to wait a while because there are rhinos on the road ahead. You may have to wait as they take their time to graze the short, tender grass at the roadside.
Opportunities for photographing rhinos start with the psychedelic rhinos at the turn-off…
I had passed by the turn-off to Ziwa a number of times on my way north to Murchison Falls National Park, but I had been unwilling to waste time in what I imagined would be a zoo-like environment, unsuitable for “real” wildlife photography. But I was mistaken. Ziwa is a great venue for photographing rhinos in the wild. But it is also more than just that. It is a place that stimulates reflection on the paradox of endangered species. Why is it that some people are so ruthlessly intent on procuring rhino horn, whatever the cost and the consequences, while others are willing to risk their own lives to protect and care for endangered animals?
That staff at Ziwa are truly committed to the rhinos and not simply “doing a job” is clear as soon as you speak to anyone about their work – they really love their rhinos. It is also clear from other things, such as the grave constructed for Justice, a five-year-old rhino that died after breaking a leg.
Rhinos are threatened worldwide
At the beginning of the 20th century there were about half a million rhinos in Africa and Asia. Today there are almost no rhinos outside sanctuaries and national parks. This is due mainly to poaching and, to a lesser degree to loss of habitat.
Poaching is the main threat to rhinos. Rhino horn is in high demand in some Asian countries and, although it is made of keratin, the same substance as horses’ hooves and human finger nails, it is worth more than its weight in gold. According to savetherhino.org the current rhino poaching crisis began in 2008 and peaked in 2014-15. Although there has been a decrease since then, on average more than two rhinos a day are still brutally killed for their horns.
There are five species of rhino, three in Asia and two in Africa. Currently there are fewer than 80 Sumatran rhino remaining in the forests of Sumatra and Borneo, and only about 70 Javan rhino left in Indonesia. Around 3,500 greater one-horned rhino remain in India and Nepal. In Africa there are two species: the white rhino (with two sub-species) and the black rhino (three sub-species – a fourth became extinct in 2011). About 5,000 black rhino remain. There are about 18,000 southern white rhino, but only two northern white rhino, both female. They are in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. When they die, northern white rhinos will be extinct. However, recently eggs from these rhinos were successfully retrieved and stored, and there is hope that they can be fertilized with sperm from a southern white rhino.
Three rhino sisters blocking the road.
In 1983 both black rhinos and northern white rhinos became extinct in Uganda. In 1997 the Rhino Fund Uganda was founded with the aim of repopulating Uganda with wild rhinos. It is a non-governmental organization (NGO) and is based at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Ziwa consists of about 60 square kilometers of savannah and woodlands and 10 km2 of swamp.
The Sanctuary acquired its first rhinos in 2005-6: four from Kenya and two from Disney Animal Kingdom in the USA. These were all southern white rhinos. In 2009 one of the rhinos gave birth to a male calf. He was the first rhino to be born in Uganda in 30 years. They called him Obama, because his mother came from the United States and his father from Kenya. Since then another 24 rhinos have been born in Ziwa, and there are currently six less than a year old. See here for the bios of all the Ziwa rhinos. Ziwa currently has 30 rhinos. One rhino, Justice, died in 2015. The aim is to send about 20 rhino to the National Parks once the total has reached 50.
Rhino mother and calf in the tall grass of the Ziwa swamp.
Protecting the rhinos in Uganda
The first time I visited Ziwa I went for a guided walk in the middle of the day, when the rhinos are resting. In the shade of a large tree we came across a group of about eight sleeping rhinos. They seemed to me like easy pickings for poachers and I mentioned this to my guide. He gestured with his head to the shade of a nearby tree and there I saw the silhouettes of a group of rangers. Ziwa takes protection of their rhinos seriously. In addition to guides and other staff there is a contingent of 100 rangers. They work in three shifts, with two rangers permanently assigned to each adult or mother and infant pair. They guard the rhinos 24/7 and collect data on their movements and behavior.
Ranger recording behavioural data.
In addition to poaching and habitat loss, the other main threat to wild rhinos is predation by lions. While adult rhinos have nothing to fear from lions, infants are vulnerable. In Uganda there is currently discussion on the national level as to how best to transfer rhinos from the successful breeding programme to the national parks while protecting infants from lions. This will probably involve fenced-off areas in the parks that exclude lions.
Rhinos are great to photograph
Rino calf suckling.
I love photographing rhinos because of their angular features, large bulk and spectacular horn. Close-up portraits look good in colour, but they also lend themselves to great high-contrast black & white or duotone. Also, because they are so large and slow, it’s easier to fill the frame, and you have plenty of time to frame your shot and focus. See here for more on wildlife portrait photography.
Three variations on a rhino portrait: colour, black & white and duotone.
Rhinos are also good to photograph close up because of their textures and colours. Their thick, leathery skin is worth a photo shoot by itself, ranging from smooth and shiny straight after a mud bath to dry and crusty. Colours can vary widely depending on the mud and dust they have been rolling in. And various body parts are photographically interesting in their own right.
When photographing in Uganda, you have the added advantage on being on foot, and the rhinos, though wild, are habituated to people. This means that you can get relatively close and position yourself for the best light. Moreover, because they sleep during the heat of the day, you need to go out the early mornings and late afternoon to find them active, which means the light is soft and warm, making for much better pictures.
See here for more of my rhino photos.
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is also a good location for photographing birds
The sanctuary is not only great for photographing rhinos. During walks you will also be able to photograph various species of antelope, monkeys, warthogs, and a wide variety of birds. There are also various nocturnal animals that you are unlikely to see, including pangolins, ant eaters, porcupines and leopards. In the swamps you can go on canoe rides and photograph the rare shoebill stork.
Double-toothed barbets Shoebill stork
Local community involvement
The sanctuary cultivates good relations with neighbouring communities. During the day, Ziwa allows neighbouring communities to bring their cattle inside the Sanctuary to graze. This benefits the local cattle herders, but it also benefits the sanctuary and the rhinos. White rhinos do not use incisor teeth to crop the grass, but crop it using their broad, flat lips. They have been described as mowing machines. To do this they need short, soft grass. Ankole longhorn cattle graze the long grass, making the short grass more accessible to the rhinos. Sometime the two species graze together, and rangers report that the infants of the different species may play together.
Ziwa also supports a local school with the proceeds from tourism.
In addition to being a great location for getting those satisfying wildlife photos, Ziwa also stimulates us to think about some of the wider issues relating to wildlife photography, such as the nature of wildlife and what it is that constitutes wildlife photography. Are the Ziwa rhinos really wildlife, or are they more like zoo animals? Does it matter? I will discuss these questions in more depth in a later post, but let me make a few preliminary comments here.
It matters because how wildlife is defined has consequences for those of us who consider ourselves wildlife photographers. Certain (positive) values are placed on photos of animals defined as “wild” that are not granted to animals defined as “captive”. You can’t enter most prestigious wildlife photography contests with photos of zoo animals, for example. And many wildlife photographers who photograph in National Parks look down on those who photograph the same animals in zoos. What is it exactly that makes a photo of a rhino in a zoo different to a similar photo taken in Ziwa, or the Serengeti National Park. And are these different to a photo of a Namibian desert rhino, far from any National Park?
Do you want to track wild rhinos on foot and take great photos of them? Then join me on a unique photographic safari to Uganda. Click here for details.