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Hope and heartbreak for rhinos

By Jovial Rantao

Johannesburg -The sharp rays of the North West sun bore down on the vegetation at the Madikwe Game Reserve as if to punish it. The soil and everything around it was bone dry.

Elephant numbers are declining in certain areas of the continent due to poaching. Picture: BENEDICT MAAGAThe darted rhino slowed down. He tried hard to stay up, but finally succumbed to the powerful drug now in his system.File photo: By mid-December, poachers had killed 633 rhinos in South Africa, according to environment ministry figures.A calf about eight months old, halfway through gestation.

There was no sign of life.

In a clearing, just past a small thorn tree, unfolded a scene that would make hardened police officers and conservation activists shed a tear or two.

As our truck approached, the full horror of rhino poaching, one of the fastest rising crimes in South Africa, hit us right between the eyes.

The female rhino lay on her side, lifeless. She had become victim number 469 to rhino poachers, who have wreaked havoc in and around game parks in the country.

While the killing of a rhino is hard enough, what we saw at Madikwe numbed most in the SA Breweries delegation. Next to the dead mother rhino lay a cute baby rhino, believed to be eight months old.

The rhino calf, halfway through gestation, fell victim to a high-calibre slug from a poacher who had launched an attack in the still of the night.

The piece of land in Madikwe had become a crime scene and the baby had been removed from her mother’s stomach by investigators searching for the bullet that could prove to be a crucial piece of evidence in the ensuing investigation.

We were to learn, a few days later, that rhino number 469 was not the only victim of the heavily armed and heartless poachers. Two others, one white (470) and the other black (471), were also shot that night and had their horns removed.

The horror scene was what our crew needed as motivation for our weekend mission. We were in Madikwe to insert chips and mark three rhinos and an elephant as part of the national effort to stop these species from being poached for their horns.

It was clear from the start that we were up against formidable, well-organised crime syndicates intent on making money.

Each rhino horn is believed to fetch at least R250 000 on the black market, with buyers mainly from East Asia.

At the crack of dawn the next day, we set off to find and implant chips in the rhinos and elephant.

Ours was a professional mission led by a qualified and experienced veterinarian, an expert helicopter pilot to spot the animals and a team of conservation officials from the North West Parks Board, who were there to make sure that the operation designed to save the rhino and elephant was done within given policies, laws and regulations.

Our day started with a coffee and a briefing from the veterinarian about the procedure for each capture and chipping.

We were briefed on the drugs used to bring down and resuscitate an animal as big as a rhino and elephant, and the safety protocol was laid out.

The formalities over, the helicopter, with the vet on board, took off to find the first rhino.

Two minutes after take-off came the message on a two-way radio that a rhino had been spotted. “The tranquilliser is in,” said Chris Pearson from Wildcon, organiser of the weekend adventure.

We took off and a few minutes later three rhinos, running at full speed, emerged from the bushes. The helicopter pilot cleverly guided them towards the road, so that the vet and “ground crew” could work on the animal.

As the tranquilliser took effect, the darted rhino slowed down. He tried hard to stay up, but finally succumbed to M99, the powerful drug now in his system.

As he went down, the pilot shepherded the other two away from their drowsy mate. As he did so, we jumped out of our vehicles and hurried in.

With military precision, we went about our assigned tasks. The vet placed a cloth over the rhino’s eyes, to minimise stress. Rugby socks were stuffed into his ears so that he did not hear all the movement and voices around him.

The vet then cut his ears in line with the identification system from the parks board.

The parks board officials drilled holes into the horns, took a specimen and inserted the chips. Blood was also drawn for the rhino DNA bank.

While all of this is taking place, ground crew members measure the length of the horns and monitor the animal’s temperature.

Minutes later, it’s all done and the vet barks instructions.

“In the cars, guys,” he says. We bolt as he administers an antidote to the rhino.

The rhino slowly comes around. He shakes his head, slowly, like a drunkard coming out of a slumber, lifts one front leg, and slowly but surely makes his way up.

He steadies himself and takes a few tentative steps. Soon he is walking around, trying to pick up his mate’s scent.

And then we leave him for our next rhino, which is a short distance away.

The most dramatic reaction to our mission was when we separated a young black rhino calf from his mother.

There we came face to face with black rhino temperament and their never-say-die attitude. After the calf was darted, the helicopter came in between mother and calf.

The black rhino mother would not budge. The helicopter went lower to force her to move, but she turned around and raised her head to challenge the helicopter.

There, in front of us, unfolded a scene that one would normally only see in Animal Planet. We saw a black rhino, its sharp horn waving in the air, trying to take down a helicopter that was trying to get between her and the calf.

Dramatic stuff. The steel bird won as the mother finally relented and ran off.

Strong family ties and being there for each other are not peculiar to black rhinos or human beings. We found this in elephants too.

Once we had found and darted the matriarch of a herd, she slowed and went down. With the helicopter hovering above, three baby elephants were determined to rescue their mother.

They tried so many times to get to her that parks board staff had to get their rifles.

The helicopter had to be used to drive them away from their mother, who was having a collar fitted, to monitor her movement and that of her herd, for research among other things.

After watching the matriarch get up after the antidote kicked in, we were pleased at a job well done – three rhinos and an elephant done well before breakfast.

We drove to the camp and sat in the shade, well away from the harsh North West sun, hoping our hard work would deter the poachers and their masters, whoever they might be. - Sunday Tribune

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