Safari with a difference: Finding Thandeka
With the debilitating levels at which rhino are being poached and the battle against extinction that is being fought to safeguard the rhino for future generations, when the invite to go watch a technique to protect the rhino landed on my desk, I could not resist.
We were invited by Sun City to come witness the Pilanesberg Wildlife Trust's new initiative to raise funds for the efforts to conserve the rhino.
The national park's rangers have started putting microscopic ID chips into the horns of rhino in order to be able to identify the horn once it's been cut off the animal.
DNA of the rhino is also collected and added to a national database that aims to keep track of the animals across the country, since there is a very real risk of the animal going extinct.
We, in a group of about 12 people, woke up early on Saturday, hopped onto safari vehicles and took the almost 20 minute drive into the Pilanesberg National Park.
The helicopter that is used to track and dart the animal from the sky before the game trackers, ecologist and vet can come near the animal to notch it. Photo: Supplied
We were met by the anti-poaching team that works at the park. Among them was park Ecologist, Steve, who took us through the challenges of trying to remain one step ahead of rhino poachers.
They rely mainly on technology and knowledge of the park in order to keep the animals safe.
What jumped out at me while Steve was talking was how unsafe the entire thing is for them. It's dangerous work keeping these animals safe and unharmed.
But when asked why they kept doing it, they all seemed slightly amused.
They do it because they love it.
Once the vet Dr Scheepers had taken us through the procedure of tracking, sedating, notching and reversing the drug, we set out to find our rhino.
This was no easy feat. We drove through the park at almost 60km/* trying to keep up with the chopper tracking the rhino from the air. The animal would also be, for safety reasons, darted from the air.
It was a dusty and cold experience but, after driving around for almost 20 minutes, we ended up finding her, Thandeka.
After she was darted and sedated, we were told we could get close to her.
The five-year-old rhino, was lying on her side when I arrived. Her breathing sounded like she'd run a marathon, but we were informed that's how they breathe.
The team set out to work, expert hands moving in synch to ensure that they insert the ID chip, notch her (cut a specific pattern, a number, into her ear for identification purposes) and collect a DNA sample for the registry.
The rhino after it has been darted and game rangers know that it is safe to approach the animal. Photo: Supplied
In 10 minutes they were done. Then, the fun could begin.
We were told to not stand directly in front of her horn, as she was not knocked out cold and could inadvertently injure us.
She was blindfolded, ear plugs (small bags filled with what looked like sand) placed in her ears to reduce the stimulus getting to her and thus making her less anxious. The petting could begin.
We had to be fast though, in order to protect her health, she could only be kept down for roughly 30 minutes, then the sedating would need to be reversed.
The drug, we were told, wears off quickly, so the animal would not be incapacitated in any way.
During the session I was overcome with emotion because I realised then how vulnerable these animals are.
How the horn, had literally become detrimental to the survival of a whole species of animal. I wanted to hug a 800kg wild animal. Comfort it.
After all the petting, and the priceless images next to the animal, we collectively named her Thandeka, which is isiZulu for one who is "loveable" or "loved". We named her this because she was so loveable.
We said our goodbyes, then moved a safe distance away and watched as Thandeka woke up to carry on with the rest of the day.
To find out more about the Rhino notching operation, visit: www.pilanesbergwildlifetrust.co.za/ or contact Mankwe Game Trackers on [email protected]
Group bookings for the activity are available.