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Safari regulars share black rhino plight with Sunnyside Rotary Club Monday

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Gary Christensen displays for Sunnyside Rotarians a Zulu sword from his March trip to Africa .
   

In 1999, Gary Christensen purchased a photographic safari to Africa at a Safari Club International fundraiser to the tune of $500.

It'd be five years before he got around to using it.

"(Africa) was all the way across the world. That was just so far away," he told Sunnyside Rotarians Monday.

After calling the outfitter on an annual basis to sway him into holding it over until the next year, the outfitter finally told him to either use it or sell it to someone who would.

"That was just enough motivation to get me to go," he said.

It was what would become the first of many safaris to Africa.

Christensen and his wife, Annette, discussed their most recent trip to Africa with the Rotarians Monday.

Christensen said his initial trip to Africa was jaw dropping. "We had the best vacation we've ever had in our lives. We saw things that you only see on the National Geographic channel.

"You'd look off into the field and there'd be five, six or eight different species of animals feeding together.

"Before we came back, we were already planning our next trip."

The annual treks to Africa have made the Christensens more mindful and supportive of the black rhinos' plight in Africa.

Prized for the ivory horn, the black rhino is a poacher's dream. In the 1950's, the black rhino population was about 850,000. That number today is closer to 2,500.

The Christensens have kept abreast of efforts in Africa to save the animals from extinction and those plans recently became a reality.

According to Christensen, 12 ranchers banded together with the African government to create a game preserve using the properties from each rancher. The end result is 60,000 acres of fenced black rhino game preserve, made possible by the fact that each rancher's property adjoins the next.

Last October, 21 rhinos were let loose on the property. It's the responsibility of the ranchers to feed them and provide security to protect the animals from poachers. In return, the government allows the ranchers to keep every other newborn black rhino.

The horns of black rhinos are a hot commodity, used to make intricate carvings for items such as daggers. Christensen said that it's acceptable to hunt elderly black rhinos in Africa, but it costs about $150,000 alone for the tag.

At the reserve, there are 45 employees, including at least one that must check on the rhinos and file reports on their status. Also on staff are armed guards to protect the animals from poaching.

Checking on the status of the 21 animals is aided by technology: the rhinos have electronic chips in their horns.

During their trip, Mrs. Christensen gained permission to trek out to the reserve accompanied by the employee responsible for checking on the animals. That day, their mission was to check on a pregnant black rhino.

Mrs. Christensen shared her experience. Prior to venturing out on the preserve, she had to sign multiple indemnity forms. Black rhinos have a poor sense of sight, but an excellent sense of smell and hearing.

"They tried to keep us downwind so she wouldn't catch our scent, but she did. She came right toward us," Christensen said, adding that black rhinos run towards what it is that they're sensing. Thankfully, the black rhino ended up veering off to the left of the group.

Christensen and her friend had been warned prior to the adventure to always be mindful of tree locations so they had an escape from the rhino route should it become necessary. That day, it didn't.

Christensen was grateful for the experience. "It was just like being in the middle of a National Geographic video," she said.

And the Christensens have kept tabs on the rhino. At the Rotary meeting, they were pleased to report that the baby rhino had been born and is in good health.

Christensen likened tracking the health of the animal and birth of the baby to eagerly awaiting the birth of a grandchild. He said that, on average, only one black rhino is born every other year.

He praised the efforts in Africa. "They're really trying to do a conservation project that is so worthwhile," he said.

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