MOHOLOHOLO REHAB CENTER, HOEDSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA — On our last day on safari, it was time to get out of the jeep and up close. Closer than we ever thought.
With the traditional ranges of Africa’s wildlife continuously shrinking, more and more these amazing animals come in contact with malicious humans. From horrid snare traps and poison to poaching and simple habitat overlap, the impact that the growing human population has on the native animals is horrendous.
The goal of Moholoholo is to lessen this impact by rehabilitating and, in some cases, returning these endangered animals to places that they are happy and safe — such as Kruger National Park and the outlying game reserves.
We spent the morning touring the center, which was home from every type of creature from the big cats (lions, cheetahs, leopards, lynx) to a pack of the extremely endangered African wild dogs, smaller creatures such as the infamous honey badger, and a host of truly regal eagles, hawks and buzzards.
We arrived on a very special day. One of the newest residents of the center, a five year-old cheetah, was being trained and socialized to human contact. They showed off her amazing speed with a special training device and then we took turns petting the amazing creature.
After that, it was a tour of the grounds, meeting all the animals, including surprisingly friendly hyenas, a naughty honey badger, Houdini, that they could just not keep in his pen — and the beautiful wild dogs, leopards and lions.
All these animals were now accustomed to human contact, so were no longer fit to be re-released into the wild. This was their home now and it was a special way to educate people on how important it is to keep these animals safe and thriving for generations to come. It brought us closer to understanding the challenges that face today’s wildlife.
But there were ways to get even closer. Moholoholo is especially known for i ts raptors: eagles, hornbills, hakws and especially the vultures. We were able to step literally into their home — our guide taking us in to the raptor pen to meet these incredible birds. An especially “friendly” eagle named Chicken nipped at my feet as we walked around his enclosure, a constant reminder of how “human” these animals can be.
The vultures were an experience unto themselves. We’re trained to see them as dirty, nasty, even evil. But in reality, they play a very important role in the bush, cleaning up the scraps that pickier predators leave behind. And up close, they are truly powerful animals. We were able to step into their enclosure and — one by one — allow them to land on our protected arms and feed them fresh beef. Your heartbeat never quite picks up more than when a 40 lb. vulture sits just inches away from your face. Incredible. And beautiful in their own way.
After Moholoholo, it was off to Tshukudu Game Reserve forour final game drive of the trip. This high-end private reserve is one of the premier locations for visiting white rhinos — the only of the big five we hadn’t yet sighted.
And we were not disappointed. After rumbling past a waterhole chock full of lazy buffalo, we came across a pair of large male rhinos munching on dried grass. These are the largest rhinos in the world, some two tons each. At Tshukudu, they purposefully remove the rhino horns in an attempt to avoid poachers. If there’s no horn to take, there’s no reason for poachers to risk prison or death to try to kill these animals. A sad, but brilliant, strategy.
The most endangered of the big five, rhinos may not make it into the next half century in the wild. That’s why places like Tschukudu are so important. Here the animals can roam and mate without danger. We even tracked down one of the newest hopes of the species — a tiny baby only weeks old.
Despite all the challenges and heartbreak that has led to the reduction of habitat loss, there’s a small but very real sense of hope when you see that these spectacular animals are continuing to do their part to thrive. From the baby elephants and rhinos, to a newborn giraffe — so young that its umbilical cord was still visible — we saw the beauty of nature trying its best to continue for future generations. For our grandchildren as well, I hope that is the case.
As the sun began to set on our final day in the bush, we were in for one more special treat. One of the rangers at Tschukudu had created a special bond with a young female cheetah that was driven away from her family by her older brothers. Now five years old, Ntombi was socialized to humans, even though she still roamed wild across the park. Our ranger brought us to her favorite evening hangout and, sure enough, she was there waiting for us.
We enjoyed a couple sundowners as the sky lit up like fire, taking our turns petting the lovely Ntombi and reflecting on such an amazing week on safari. It was truly the perfect end to the trip of a lifetime. The beauty, the adventure, the purity of this amazing place — these moments are difficult to describe, but nonetheless will stay with us forever.