Rhinos dial 911

Ingrid Oellermann, Reported in "The Witness", 17th September 2009

SWINGING like giant pendulums in the sky, six black rhinos were airlifted from game reserves in Zululand recently in a move aimed at ensuring the ultimate survival of this critically endangered species.

The black rhinos are among a total of nine that are destined for a new home as part of the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) black rhino range expansion project, undertaken in partnership with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) — the primary custodian of the remaining black rhino population in this province.

The aim of the project is to stimulate breeding and establish founder populations of black rhino throughout KwaZulu-Natal and in other parts of South Africa and Africa.

EKZNW media officer Jeff Gaisford said four black rhinos were taken from the Imfolozi Wilderness area and two others were airlifted out of Hluhluwe Game Reserve earlier this month. Another two were captured in the St Lucia area a few days later.

Gaisford said the destination of the rhinos will not be made public at this stage because of ongoing problems with poaching, but is a private reserve considered highly suitable for the species. Reserves smaller than 20 000 hectares do not qualify for participation in the project, he added.

The reason for airlifting the animals instead of capturing them on land, is due to the inaccessiblity of their dense habitat and it is quicker, easier and less stressful for the rhinos — although somewhat tricky and requiring great skill on the part of the capture team.

Gaisford explains that after locating a suitable animal from the air, it is darted with a safe drug consisting of a combination of anaesthetic and tranquilliser. This knocks the rhino out after about five minutes, but in the interim it is closely tracked and as soon as it is deemed safe, the tracker will try to rope the animal and possibly tie it to a tree to prevent it stumbling into a donga or other dangers. It is also blindfolded to prevent eye damage.

The helicopter will drop the capture team as close to the fallen rhino as possible. The team immediately inserts ear- plugs into the animal’s ears, which are taped up to reduce noise stress, and it is rolled into a large cargo net. The net is attached to a steel frame and cable, and in this manner is airlifted by the helicopter and ferried to a chosen drop-off point where it is very gently lowered to the ground.

Once the net is removed, the animal is examined by a vet, correctly positioned and a nose rope is attached to the still unconscious rhino which is used to gently pull it (using a 4x4) into a specially designed crate. It remains blindfolded.

Within minutes of being injected with an antidote, the rhino is ready to be crated, and transported by truck to its destination. All nine black rhinos captured in this operation will spend some time in pens at Umfolozi Game Reserve pending their removal to their new home.

According to the WWF website, there are only about 3 100 black rhinoceros left in the wild in South Africa, of which about 530 are in KwaZulu-Natal. The black rhino population declined steadily from hundreds of thousands before the 19th century, to 65 000 by the mid-20th century. Then in the seventies to eighties a devastating poaching crisis, fuelled by demand for rhino horn in the Middle and Far East, almost eradicated black rhinos.

“Since those dark days, black rhino numbers have been inching back up in some countries [most black rhino are currently found in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya and Zimbabwe]. But there is no room for complacency. Poaching remains an ever-present threat. Demand for rhino horn products continues,” says WWF.

White Rhinos relaxing with Blue Wildebeest in iMfolozi Game Reserve, Kwa Zulu Natal