Cry, the beloved rhino

Laura Clancy. Laura Clancy

It’s 6am on a brisk and clear April morning. It’s going to be a hot but memorable day. We’re getting ready to go on an adventure which only a few fortunate people get to experience – a rhino relocation in the Kruger National Park. But first there’s time for coffee and hot cross buns. The group I’m with sets off cross country in a game vehicle. There’s a sense of anticipation as well as nervousness as we stop in what feels like the middle of nowhere. It’s incredible to be able to walk around ‘Kruger’ (almost) freely.

The Kruger National Park. Picture: Laura Clancy/Primedia Broadcasting. 

Here we meet with the huge team that is involved in a rhino capture operation. As we wait for the helicopter which will take the vet rhino-spotting, two large trucks with containers and cranes arrive – they will be transporting the rhino. Today they’re trying to capture two young female rhino, which will be taken to a boma in Skukuza, before being sold. There are other reasons for capturing rhino, including a high threat of poaching and spreading the gene pool.

The helicopter lands and the vet briefs us on what’s going to happen – basically he’ll go up in the helicopter looking for rhino. Once he finds the right age and sex, he will attempt to dart it, all the while communicating with the ground operation which has to mobilise in time to get to the drugged rhino as quickly as possible. The rhino are drugged with Etorphine, commonly referred to as M99. It is a very powerful opioid that contains pain-relieving qualities said to be thousands of times more potent than that of morphine, a related substance. The drug primarily impacts the neurological system and, though it does appear to have some slight narcotic effects on the animal’s cognisance, it is not considered a tranquiliser or a sedative. 

A ranger prepares to fly over the Kruger National Park, to scout for rhino. Picture: Laura Clancy/Primedia Broadcasting.  

And we’re off. At first the pace is quite sedate, but after a few false starts, word comes that a rhino has been darted. We race off, leaving the other visitors to the park; quite a few of them shake their fists or sternly glare at us as we race past them. If only they knew where we were going!

A rhino's eyes are covered as Kruger National Park rangers tend to it before relocation. Picture: Laura Clancy/Primedia Broadcasting. 

The rhino is down and the operation is in full swing.  There is no hesitation; everyone knows their place. From veterinary interns collecting blood and DNA, to the rangers making sure the rhino is secured, it is a well-oiled machine. There is no panic just purpose.

I get my chance to touch her - she is hard, but not in a horrible way and behind her ears are so soft. I cannot believe that these gentle creatures are being hunted for their horns which have absolutely no medicinal value whatsoever. 

Soon all the veterinary business is over and it’s time to load this valuable cargo on to the truck. At first she is reluctant to stay up, seeming to be a little wobbly on her feet and it takes everyone’s effort to guide her to the container.  She’s not happy in the container, stomping her feet to show her displeasure but she soon quietens down – whether it’s the tranquiliser or she realises that her life is about to change, who knows. 

Kruger National Park rangers relocate a rhino.  Picture: Laura Clancy/Primedia Broadcasting.

We head back to our camp exhausted but exhilarated at the same time. What a humbling experience. I have touched a rhino, caressed its skin, felt her breath on my hand. To be honest, I am still baffled as to why these creatures are being mercilessly hunted and slaughtered. 

What I do know we need to keep fighting for them.

Rhino Stats - April 2013

The rhino poaching crisis continues unabated as recent figures show that 249 rhinos have now been killed in South Africa since the beginning of the year. Numbers from the Department of Environmental Affairs show the Kruger National Park remains the hardest hit, with the number of rhinos poached since last week increasing from 167 to 180.

A rhinocerous in the Kruger National Park. Picture: Laura Clancy/Primedia Broadcasting.

On the positive side, the number of alleged poachers arrested countrywide has increased to 78, with two alleged couriers arrested in KwaZulu-Natal in the past week. This brings to five the number of alleged middlemen arrested so far this year. A total of 73 people are facing poaching related charges and additional charges of the illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.

However, before we all throw up our hands in despair a recent media visit to the Kruger Park shows the impact of the work being done by SANParks, supported and funded by the Honorary Rangers and Unite Against Poaching (UAP).

Rangers in the 22 sections of the two million hectare park are being equipped with state of the art equipment from the more than R6 million donated by Unite Against Poaching through the Honorary Rangers. As one person remarked without UAP and the support of the public “we would be wearing jockstraps and slippers”. Equipment ranges from basic survival kits to hi-tech night vision gear. The special response unit is equipped with kits which cost R150 000 each. So intense is the war (and use the term war is used widely), the media was asked not to show the equipment so as not to tip off any potential poachers.

There is also a new dog unit being established to assist the rangers to track poachers. Foxhounds Chico, Jetta and Polo are being trained to use their noses as part of a UAP sponsorship.

Sniffer dogs, working with rangers at the Kruger National Park to hunt for rhino poachers. Picture: Laura Clancy/Primedia Broadcasting. 

The initiative is also supporting the Rhodis project at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria's Faculty of Veterinary Science. The project is collecting DNA samples of rhinos across the country (and the world) to create a database using the unique DNA profile of individual rhinos. It costs R600 for each rhino to be added to the database (excluding darting and sample collection costs). The goal is for all rhinos to be on the system. This will deter poachers and assist in forensic prosecutions.

Stats on rhino poaching. Source: Department of Environmental Affairs. 

• This trip was made possible by Unite against Poaching (established by Unitrans Volkswagen) and the Honorary Rangers.