Okavango resident like to regale visitors with excerpts from exchanges of banter between President Ian Khama and Mpho Malongwa.
In the delta, story is legion: While surveying a herd of rhinos at the Okavango Delta, President Khama would make a light hearted remark that “these are my rhinos”.
Mpho, who goes by the sobriquet “Poster”, would respond: “No, these are my rhinos.”
Poster, 33, would later tell Dereck Joubert then writing an article for Discover Botswana Magazine that, “All Batswana now know that this is not just a few rhinos, not my rhinos or the President’s rhinos, but they are our rhinos”.
Scores of tourists and international journalists who frequent the Okavango Delta however know that when the subject is rhinos, Poster is the man to see.
This evening, Poster is in his element as he lectures an assortment of tourists and journalists at Mombo camp in the delta on his favourite subject.
Although Poster likes to keep a low profile, his reputation as an authority on rhinos precedes him. International journalists always seek him out as a source for their documentaries about rhinos.
The heavily built Poster is not a ranger, he is neither a tour guide nor does he have any guide training, but he is the Chief Rhino Monitoring Officer of the project in the delta. His wealth of information comes from studying and living with the animals.
Poster remembers his few years in school as a brief pity party: He used to walk to school in Gabane from Mokolodi, feeling pity for himself because he did not have shoes. He then decided to pack away his school books at standard three and headed for the cattle post where he got a job as a herd boy. He was paid with seven goats every year, and once his small stock had accumulated into a Moraka, Poster set his sight on a better paying job. He joined Mokolodi Nature Reserve and his first job was to clear Mokolodi bush to take guests. His break came when Mokolodi started looking for someone to take care of the rhinos at the nature reserve. He went for the job interview.
Because of his strong character and built, the bosses looked at him once and knew they had found their man.
“Mokolodi took me for an interview and asked me my interests,” explains Poster to The Telegraph. “I said rhinos and because they could see that I was strong, they took me in.”
Unlike many young people, who are lured by money to change jobs as new offers come, his decision to leave Mokolodi, which he still calls home, was influenced by his love for the rhinos that were facing extinction because of the threat from poachers.
Poster joined Wilderness Safaris during the time of Botswana Rhino Reintroduction project in 2001. That was at the time when five first rhinos were released to wander freely in to the wild. He says working for the conservation company is not about money, but it is about the love for these animals.
This is how Wilderness tells Poster’s story on its website: “In 2001 Wilderness Safaris was moving white rhino from Mokolodi Game Reserve to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary as part of the reintroduction project in Botswana. I met Grant Woodrow (then Environmental Manager) at the Rhino Sanctuary and asked him if he had any employment.
Grant then asked me to meet him in the morning. Morning arrived and Grant, Ian Michler and I were walking towards the boma where the rhinos were. When I noticed a white rhino in the boma coming towards us, I recognised it as ‘Sergeant’. Grant and Ian were apprehensive and unsure. I said, “It’s fine I know this is my rhino – Sergeant.” Grant realised that Poster is the man! Grant said he would employ me to monitor and look after the rhino. I was very happy about this and have been doing this for over seven years.”
The first individuals of rhinos came from Mokolodi and because he was emotionally attached to the rhinos, he felt they ‘were being taken away’ from him.
“I felt they were taking away my animals and I felt I should go with them.” That was when he joined the Wilderness Safaris, a conservation company that co-owns the project with the government of Botswana.
Currently, there are 48 white rhinos and 5 white ones and is happy that the project is successful.
The project is one of the few in the region where rhinos can move freely without being fenced.
The success of the project has made Poster popular with tourists who are interested in conservation as he previously appeared on Africa Geo and hosting the flag of his country and his home village, Mokolodi, higher. Derek and Beverly Joubert, Explorers in Residence at National Geographic have also done a project on Botswana rhinos.
The film titled ‘Rhino Rescue’ tells the tragic story of extinction in the wilds of Botswana black and white rhino at the hands of poachers.
Without blowing his trumpet Poster says: “I will be happy if Batswana could know about this project and be educated. Batswana should know that I am contributing to the industry.”
He says he is getting recognition since the documentary was shown on international channels. Most tourists come to Botswana looking for the rhino boy.
“Even though I am not educated, I am proud that I am making a contribution to my country,” he explains.
Despite dropping out of school early, Poster speaks fluent English, which is a medium of communication with tourists.
He did not learn the language as many did at high school or phonology class at a university or colleges, but from his interaction with the late Boipuso Kirby.
It was sort of an exchange agreement where Boipuso would learn Setswana from Poster while in return, he would teach him English.
When Poster joined Mokolodi, Boipuso had gone to school overseas. When he came back, his Setswana was rusty. That was when the language “trade exchange” began.
“We taught him (Boipuso) Setswana and he taught me English and as we socialised, he would encourage me to speak English,” explains Poster.
Poster is not only fluent in English, but has other competencies in power point and computers that he uses during presentations. These skills were given to him by his current employers, the Wilderness Safaris.
Sally Anne of Wilderness says that the biggest contribution that Poster is making to Botswana should be looked at ‘environment perspective’ at the macro level.
Anne says although they are not promoting Poster, he explains that he is safety conscious and his main job is to see that the rhinos are safe, adding that the job he is doing is by ‘no means a luxury one as he can spend days in the bush’.
Currently, Poster works with the Environmental Team of Wilderness Safaris as the Monitoring Officer.
“His natural skills exceed the guides training course. He fully understands rhinos and has never gotten into any dangerous situation,” says Anne.
“Poster is protecting the rhinosÔÇöhe has got all the information about the animals in his brain. That information, he feeds it to the Environmental Unit”.
“If there is anything they want about the rhinos, they contact Poster.”
Although, Poster has featured in international documentaries, Anne says they do not advertise him.
The Rhino Reintroduction project has been dubbed the Public, Private Partnerships (PPPs) of conservation because it involves different stakeholders, including government and the private sector.
“We could have not done it on our own,” says Anne.
During the process of relocating the rhinos, the Veterinary officers were involved; government trucks and C130 from the BDF Air arm were also deployed.
The project receives its funding from the Wilderness Wildlife Trust, which makes its money partly from donations.
Such contributions are so generous that one guest at one of the Wilderness camps bought a Rhino Monitoring Vehicle (RMV) while other guests have sponsored the equipment that Poster uses.
The project came after the realisation that elephants were prolific on the Chiefs camp in the delta, but threatened by poachers that sell the ivory for different purposes and Anne said they believe Batswana should know about the project.
The aim of the project is to re-introduce the two rhino species into the wild in Botswana and also conduct ongoing research into these species.
It is said that by 1990s, almost all Botswana’s wild rhinos had been killed by poachers greedy for rhino horns to satisfy the demand for Chinese medicines and Middle Eastern dagger handlers.
Wilderness approached government to re-introduce the rhinos to the Okavango Delta once it was successful in winning the Mombo concession.
Wilderness has staged several releases of the animals and almost 30 white rhinos were introduced into the delta. It is estimated that 20 white rhinos are needed to form what is known as ‘viable breeding herd’.
“Finally, in July 2004, just two years after the first releases, we found something that made us all excited indeed: the telltale, tiny tracks of a white rhino calf. We were able to follow these tracks and find a calf aged 10 days old-an impossible cute, miniature rhino and the icing cake for us. Not only had the rhinos adapted to their new home, but they have also bred and now given birth successfully and we are looking at the first rhino born in the wild in this country in at least 15 years,” says Wilderness Safaris.