South Africa’s rhino are being poached at an alarming rate. In defense of these great beasts, two of Africa’s foremost tourism and conservation companies have joined forces to create Rhinos Without Borders, a project which relocates rhino to a safer location in neighbouring Botswana. Here’s how.
A while ago I was fortunate enough to be part of a truly unique experience: to witness the inaugural capture of rhino by Rhinos Without Borders.
While this might sound sinister, it’s anything but. Rhinos Without Borders is an organisation set up by &Beyond and Great Plains Conservation, two competitors in the luxury tourism industry that decided to unite against a common threat: the rapid eradication of rhino in South Africa.
By eradication, I mean poaching, a horrific practice whereby poachers kill these majestic beasts for their horns. Made from keratin, like human hair or fingernails, rhino horn and pangolin scales are in high demand by a burgeoning middle class in the Far East, and while it continues to defy logic, procuring these products somehow satiates a desire for increased personal status and wellbeing.
By leveraging the combined resources and expertise of its parent companies, and with donor funding, Rhinos Without Borders intends to combat poaching by relocating 100 rhino from high-risk areas across South Africa to safer locations in Botswana.
The capture I was invited to took place over three days, and from start to finish it was an impressive display of world-class wildlife management practices and expertise. As you can no doubt imagine, an animal that weighs between 1,700kg and 2,300kg is neither easy to catch nor move, and the operation requires multiple skilled professionals including researchers, trackers, helicopter pilots, wildlife veterinarians and crane operators.
While I was fortunate enough to see the capture of 10 rhino, the capture of a single rhino is in itself a production of epic proportions that requires expert coordination and planning. So how does it all happen?
To start with, rhino are not captured at random. Enter the research team. Years of knowledge and observation has built a robust database of exactly who’s who, and before the capture operation begins a number of suitable candidates are identified. With (possibly) the easiest part of the operation completed, things start to get a little harder. Firstly, once a candidate has been identified it has to be found…
These rhino live in a remote wilderness location, not any kind of zoo, and while rhino might be one of the largest land mammals on the planet, they can be deceptively hard to find, especially when you’re looking for one! Enter guides and trackers, who with support from a helicopter team, scour the most likely terrain.
Having located a rhino (or two), things start to get really tricky. A highly-experienced wildlife vet, who just happens to be an expert marksman with a dart gun, takes to the air in the helicopter in search of the previously located rhino, which isn’t necessarily in the same place anymore. What ensues is a bizarre ballet where the dancers are a low-flying helicopter and an adult rhino, and while the rhino quite clearly doesn’t want to dance, the helicopter does.
A rhino has a large behind – not quite as big as the proverbial side of the barn, but close – and while this may appear to be a large target, shooting a tranquiliser dart in it while it’s moving through a woodland at 30km/h, from a helicopter that’s flying sideways just above the treetops, is nothing short of amazing.
‘Dart in’, and the next team springs into action. The tranquiliser is relatively fast acting, and to ensure the rhino doesn’t injure itself as it takes effect, the support team needs get to it almost immediately. A small convoy of vehicles and a truck race to the scene and cautiously approach the now-groggy rhino.
The first order of business is to drape a blindfold over its eyes to calm it further. Once done, an army of vets, researchers and assistants surround the animal, firstly to ensure that it topples safely to one side in a manner that doesn’t compromise its heart function or breathing, and secondly to perform a rapid series of veterinary and research functions that range from drawing blood to notching its ears for easy future identification. The team has only a few minutes before the antidote to the tranquiliser needs to be administered, and they can get the rhino safely on the truck.
‘Antidote in’, and as the befuddled rhino begins to recover the large team assists it to its feet. Using a rope looped around it head, they steer the (still blindfolded) rhino into a small shipping container before it fully wakes. It’s a fine balance – too soon and the rhino is too drowsy to get to it’s feet, too late and the rhino is no longer docile enough to maneuver into the shipping container. It’s all very Jurassic Park.
‘Rhino in’, and the container is closed and lifted onto the back of a flatbed crane truck. The rhino’s now transported to a holding pen, where it’s released and monitored for a number of weeks to ensure it’s in good health before its onward journey. When the time comes, the rhino is again loaded into a shipping container, this time for the significantly longer journey from South Africa to Botswana.
Following their capture, all 10 rhino were successfully relocated to an undisclosed location in Botswana. In the group was a pregnant female that gave birth to her calf shortly after arriving at their new home, a welcome addition to the group and an auspicious start to their new lives.
If you’re a rhino, the entire process is undeniably unpleasant, but when the alternative is having the front of your face hacked off (while alive or after you’ve been slaughtered) then it’s the lesser of two evils.
While countries and governments may be expected to play a role in the conservation of natural resources, it would appear this is an unrealistic hope – increasingly so in African countries that have rapidly expanding human populations. Safari companies funded by tourism are playing a progressively important role in protecting and conserving Africa’s rich wildlife heritage for future generations, and Rhinos Without Borders is but one example of this.