Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary: Rhinocerosly Close

By Martyn Tumwesigye

June 21, 2014

Did you know that the white rhinoceros are the second heaviest land mammals on earth weighing in at 3,600 Kgs? Did you know that last year (2013) 1,000 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone by poachers for their horns? Did you also know both black and white rhinos have always been endemic to Uganda but due to a number of factors including poaching, both species were wiped out of the country with the last black rhino being  killed in 1983?

Step in at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Located 176 kilometres by road North of Kampala City in Nakasongola district, in the Kafu River Basin off the Kampala – Gulu highway, Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary  is the only place in Uganda, where rhinos can be observed on foot in their natural habitat. Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is a breeding ground for rhinos, under Rhino Fund Uganda a non-profitable Non-Governmental Organization that with the collaboration of Uganda Wildlife Authority is committed to the restoration of Uganda’s rhinoceros population.

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Established in 2005, Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary to date is a model breeding ground for white rhinos and has 14 rhinos of which 8 were conceived at the sanctuary. The sanctuary is 70 square kilometres and is surrounded by a 2 metres high live electric fence that’s meant to keep the rhinos in and intruders out. Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary not only provides an experience like no other by providing an opportunity to see rhinos on foot, but the sanctuary is also home to other mammals and reptilian species like monkeys, antelopes, hippopotamuses, crocodiles and many bird species the highlight of the birding activity being Shoebill canoe ride.

Our journey started off around 8AM and after a three-hour ride to Nakasongola, we arrived at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. The guards at the gate inquired where we were from and had us sign the visitor’s book and directed us to drive to the headquarters where we would be assigned a park ranger as our guide to help us track rhinos and any other activities we wanted to take part in.

On reaching the headquarters, we got assigned to Opio Raymond, a slightly short, bubbly, dark skinned man who always wore a smile, as our guide. He proposed that since we were staying for the night and were going to take part in the shoebill canoe ride the following morning, it was advisable we take a rest and wait for the mid afternoon heat to cool then we could head out to track rhinos in the evening. We then proceeded to Amuka Safari Lodge where we had lunch and relaxed around the swimming pool for a few hours.

Around 4:00 PM with Joshua on the wheel, we headed out with Opio to track the rhinos. He told us we would drive for a certain distance after which we’d have to park the car and track the rhinos on foot. As we drove, I started off by asking Opio when the Sanctuary opened.

“It started in 2004 by the building of the electric fence” He said “The first rhinos,  purchased by Rhino Fund Uganda with donor money,  to be brought to the sanctuary, came in 2005 from Solio ranch in Kenya. They were called Bella and Kori (females). The two males are Taleo and Moja”.

“Another group of two rhinos male and female came from Disney Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida in the United States, as a donation from Disney Land to Rhino Fund Uganda because it’s a breeding ground for rhinoceros and they were at one time extinct in Uganda” explained Opio.

“The two rhinos are called Nandi and Hassani. The breeding went on successfully and two babies were born in 2009, one from the mother Nandi who came from the USA and the father Taleo who came from Kenya and they gave birth to one of the more popular rhinos at the sanctuary called Obama”.

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Opio further explained that the second rhino to be born at the sanctuary, was called Augustu from both parents who came from Kenya. The name Augustu was sponsored by Augsburg Zoo in Germany, who annually still donates funds to Rhino Fund Uganda. When a new baby rhinoceros is born, they auction the name so someone has to pay money to name the rhino. There are different kinds of donations states Opio, such as buying a rhino foot print, which is a paper cut into a rhino foot print shape on which you can write anything you want on it and it’s plugged on a wall of fame at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary headquarters. You can also buy a paper cut shape of a rhino.

“We only breed white rhinos at Ziwa” said Opio. I asked him the difference then between a white rhino and a black rhino.

“White rhinos are called white not because they are white but because of the wide mouth” explained Opio “It comes from the Dutch word Wijd meaning wide so as the Dutch language influenced into Africans, when the white man came to name the animals in Africa and he was asked what the name of the rhino was? He had to pronounce it white”. The difference between a white rhino and a black rhino is the mouth, their size, their preferred habitat and what they feed on. The black rhino has a pointed hooked mouth.  The reason for naming them Black Rhino is not sure.. Black rhinos feed on leaves and shrubs (browsers) but white rhinos feed on short grass (grazers). Black rhinos are smaller and weigh less than white rhinos.

When we finally got to where the rhinos were, we found a large group of tourists who were already enjoying the experience of being so close to the large animals while they grazed. In the nearby bush were two park rangers who kept watch over the rhinos. Opio explained that the park rangers keep a 24 hour watch on the rhinos tracking them everywhere they go to make sure they are safe.

“Because of insecurity, in the early eighties, rhinos had become extinct in Uganda. The last black rhino was seen in 1983” Said Opio. Prior to that all were rhinos had been poached. “Rhinos are only poached for their horns.” Explained Opio.

We spent the night at Amuka Safari Lodge and we were up the following morning at 6AM armed with boots and life jackets, we were joined by Opio and this time we were headed on a 7KM ride to the swamp that’s near the sanctuary for a shoebill canoe ride. The shoebill stork is one of the most sought after birds in Uganda and can be seen at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.
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What sets Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary apart is the professionalism, ability and technical know-how of the guides. Every guide is well trained to make your experience at the sanctuary memorable. All the guides are knowledgeable about rhinos and wildlife activities and can easily answer any of your questions while you track the rhinos.

Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary has not only done a commendable job of restoration of rhinoceros in Uganda, but they have also provided jobs for the community in which the sanctuary is located. They also have a community cattle feeding programme where the cattle owners in the area are allowed to graze their cattle in the sanctuary during the day which in turn keep the grass short for the rhinos.

Getting There:

Leave Kampala through Kawempe on the Gulu Highway

Stay on the Gulu Highway past Bombo, Wobulenzi, Luweero, Nakasongola, Mijeera.  Mijeera is the last village before reaching Nakitoma where you will see Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary’s two rhino statues on the left side of the road.  There are sign boards 3km outside of Nakitoma from Kampala and Gulu sides indicating Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary’s turn off 3km ahead.  Branch at the rhino statues.  It is a 3km dirt road to the main gate.  At the main gate, inform the ranger where you are heading, Amuka Lodge or Rhino Fund Reception.  You can also ask the gate ranger for directions, alternatively there is a map at the main gate that you can take a look at.

From Gulu / Masindi

Travel on the Gulu Highway towards Kampala.  After passing the Kafu Junction, you will pass through Kafu village.  The next village is Nakitoma where you will see Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary’s rhino statues on the right side of the road.  Turn onto the dirt road at the rhino statues.

For more information on how to book a trip to Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary and the costs of rhino tracking plus other activities, please visit their website:

Email: angie@rhinofund.org/ administration@rhinofund.org
Mobile: +256 (0) 772 713 410/ +256 (0) 758 713 410 (Angie)

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