Rhino conservation in South Africa

It wasn’t my first time in South Africa, nor on a game safari. I have been lucky enough to spend many hours in the bush, tracking wildlife and admiring it from the safety of a vehicle.

This time was different though. This time I would be face to face with the wildlife, fighting to save them.

I am on a private game farm just outside of Kruger National Park. The exact location can’t be disclosed for protection of the owners and the rhinos. I am part of a special group tour operated by Where Wild Things Roam Travel.

Where Wild Things Roam Travel provides travellers with an opportunity to give something back when travelling and make a difference in local communities namely the protection of wildlife and the environment. The eight-day tour to South Africa engages in some hands-on conservation activities with rhino that you cannot do anywhere else.

Rhinos are in grave danger of poaching. Every year their numbers are dropping as they are illegally hunted in reserves across Africa. For the past five years, African rhinos have been poached at a rate of three per day and if this senseless slaughter does not stop, they could be lost in our lifetime.

The morning starts with the group meeting at the house. Here I am introduced to Dr Peter Rogers, owner of ProVet Wildlife Services. With over 30 years’ experience, Dr Rogers is considered one of the most experienced wildlife veterinarians in the world. He specializes in the capture and veterinary care of some of South Africa’s most endangered species, including the southern white rhinoceros and black rhinoceros. I am honoured to meet such an incredible man and anticipate an exceptional experience ahead.

As Dr Peters explains the equipment he uses, the rhythmic hum of a helicopter fills the air. The helicopter rotors slow to a stop and out steps the pilot. To my delight she is a female and I revel in a moment of ‘power to the women’. Jana Meyer is the Chief Pilot, Founder and Company Owner of Hope for Wildlife Helicopter Services and is the pilot in charge of the operation for the day.

With Jana’s arrival, Dr Rogers begins to brief us about the mission. We are to go track rhino on the ground, while Jana takes the search to the air. Once located, Dr Rogers will go up in the chopper and dart the rhino with a sedative and his team of vets and assistants with secure the animal ready for de-horning. Once the de-horning is completed, Dr Rogers administers the reverse agent, and everyone must clear the area for the rhino to recover and return to the bushveld. Sounds simple enough.

The truth is, the situation is far from simple. The war on poaching has become so dire that drastic measures are being taken to protect the rhino. While micro-chipping the horn is a way to trace a horn once removed and provide vital information as to where the rhino was located to be used in prosecuting the poachers, some say by that time it is too late.

After pouring a huge amount of funds and collaborative efforts into region-wide anti-poaching efforts, there is still an unacceptable loss of rhino from reserves. Therefore, an unattractive choice had to be made – lose more rhino to poachers or remove the horns from the rhino. Rhino dehorning is definitely not the best option, but for now it is a means of deflecting.

I query the actual horn removal process with Dr Rogers, who put’s my mind at ease from the thought of chopping off the very thing that defines this animal, its horn. He explains that rhino dehorning is a drastic measure but has become necessary due to such a drastic poaching crisis and the approach is “no horn, no poaching”.

“Rhino dehorning may seem like a brutal process, but it is always carried out by professional conservation teams who take every step to ensure that dehorning is done safely and does not cause any harm to the rhino,” Dr Rogers adds.

“It is important for the public to understand why rhino dehorning is done, and to help spread awareness about this conservation approach.” Dr Rogers explains.

“It is equally important to know that operations such as this is where a major portion of funds raised get directed towards.”

Our chat is cut short by the static breaking over the radio and Yana’s voice informing us that she has spotted a black rhino. It was go time and we filed into vehicles and raced through the bushveld towards the area the helicopter was hovering around.

Dr Rogers jumps into the helicopter and we sit and wait for him to dart the rhino and give the all clear to approach. Crunching through the dense bush, my heart is pounding in my chest as I approach the sedated rhino. He is already surrounded by the vet team and security guarding him and has a mask covering his eyes. As I get closer, I notice Dr Rogers putting wads of material in the rhino’s ears – giant earplugs to help keep him calm during the whole process.

All hands were on deck trying to complete tasks before the sedatives wore off. Samples of horn and blood were taken. Its ears were ‘notched’ to create a form of identification and most importantly, the horn was removed and the small portion that remained was treated to seal it. The horns are made up primarily of keratin – a protein found in hair, fingernails, and animal hooves. Removing the horn does not cause any pain to the rhino and it will eventually grow back.

As I stood with this detached rhino horn in my hand, I find it hard to believe the need for such a thing. Rhino horn is used in Traditional Medicine, but increasingly common is its use as a status symbol to display success and wealth. It has been proven that the horn has no medicinal powers whatsoever, making the desire to consume it even more pointless. The horn is tagged and taken away to be stored in a secure location. Even the slithers of horn piles on the ground are collected up so not a trace is left behind.

Before the rhino is injected with the reversal drug, I take a moment to take it all in. Standing right next to this 2.5 tonne male black rhino, I can feel his breath every time his body heaves to exhale. I reach out and touch him, his rough skin caked in dried cracked mud in places. He feels warm and for a moment I begin to tear up. To think that there may be a day when the last rhino may take his last breath is too much to bear and I step away to allow the team to finish the task and administer the reversal agent.

A black rhino can be aggressive at the best of times, so waking up after the de-horning meant we better be far away. The group piles into the trucks and I am lucky enough to be able to jump into the helicopter with Yana for a birds-eye view. Cutting it close, we take off just as the rhino begins to stumble to his feet. We circle around him and watch as he starts charging off in the direction of the vehicles. Luckily, the vehicles were quick in their getaway and just a bit faster than the rhino, to be able to drive away to safety. The rhino makes an about turn and runs off into the dense bush and we lose visual.

I look out across the bush below me that extends on for as far as the eye can see. I wander how many more rhinos are out there and hope with all my heart they stay safe. To see that rhino return safely to the bush, knowing that it’s chance of survival had been increased and the overall survival of the species increased, was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in Africa to date.

It is the hard work and dedication of people like Jana Myers and Dr Peter Rogers and his team that give these animals hope. There is still much more that needs to be done though including more resources for counter-poaching and rhino monitoring teams. Training of the judiciary is vital so that they understand the seriousness of wildlife crimes and impose appropriate sentences together with a coordinated and better-funded effort by Governments, national police forces and illegal trade investigators in trying to reduce the demand for rhino horn worldwide.

Most of all, is the need to keep speaking about the cause. The more we talk about it, the more the world will become educated. To protect anything, you have to care about it, and to care about it, you have to know it is there. When you need to conserve, one of the most important things is education. To fight for conservation, you need to understand and feel it.

For more about conservation activities in South Africa, please visit South Africa Tourism at https://www.southafrica.net/au/en/travel

Kate Webster is a world traveller, ocean lover and conservation warrior who is determined to make every moment count for not only herself but the world around her. This has inspired Kate to translate those moments and share them through her storytelling. A dedicated David Attenborough and Jane Goodall fan, Kate has delved into the world of wildlife and conservation travel to bring awareness.