Tuesday, 3 July 2012

30th June – Doing it For The Rhinos!

Photo of the Day
Vet Peter Rogers working on one of the rhinos we micro-chipped today

Morning Drive

(Chad, Shadrack, Herold and Grant)

2 x rhinos (female and calf)

1 x rhino (bull)

1 x breeding herd of elephants – De Luca, Western Cutline

1 x breeding herd of elephants – Argyle, Skatie se pad

1 x breeding herd of elephants – Klaserie

1 x elephant bull – Karans, Umbabat Cutline

10 x elephant bulls – Argyle, Gina’s Rd

1 x breeding herd of elephants – Argyle, Rudi’s Rd

1 x elephant bull – Peru, Timbavati-Umbabat Cutline

Afternoon Drive

(Grant, Shadrack, Herold and Chad)

1 x leopard (Machaton Male) – Mbali, Western Cutline

1 x breeding herd of buffalo – Java, Java Dam Access

2 x buffalo – Java, Java Dam

3 x elephant bulls – Motswari, Soccer Field

2 x elephant bulls – Argyle, Long Rd

Daily Synopsis

Sorry for delaying this post so long, but was a bit hectic couple of days, but eventually found some time to sit down and write about this wonderful experience!

Before getting onto the events of the day, I guess it would be pertinent to briefly go over some of the background to rhinos and rhino poaching for those that are not too familiar with the subject; although it would be quite hard not to be aware of it considering the amount of publicity it has been receiving.

For starters, as of today, 261 rhinos have been poached in South Africa this year alone. Last year, 2011, saw 448 of these amazing animals being slaughtered, while in 2010, 333 rhinos were killed. 2009 was 122, and 2008 was “only” 83; the decade prior to that saw an average of about 18 rhinos being killed annually; it thus doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see the massive increase in poaching that has taken place over the last 5 years!

Whilst listening to the presentations given by some of the leading authorities in rhinos and rhino poaching in the world today, one got to learn things that are often not presented in the media, and things that are sometimes overlooked. The one that struck me most was that it always appeared as though the anti-poaching measures were being ineffective and making no difference to the plight of the rhinos, but when the figures of rhino poaching are presented in three-month intervals as opposed to just annual figures, for the last two years, many successive periods saw relative decreases in the numbers of rhinos being poached – even this year, following the massive spike at the end of last year and beginning of 2012, there has been a decrease in the rate of poaching over the last few months; and were many of the measures not being put in place, then who knows just how many rhinos would have been lost; so basically, don’t lose faith, as work is being done to help them.

Another thing that was discussed was the actual numbers of rhinos in the world, and it was a point that also struck me when I attended a talk by the head scientist SANParks a couple of months ago; there are actually many more rhinos than most people believe – even a couple of days ago, one of my guests was quite surprised when we were discussing rhino numbers in South Africa. Without doubt white rhinos are one of the greatest success stories in South Africa; at the turn of the nineteenth century, there were probably no more than 100 white rhinos left in SA...today, there are close to 20,000! The Kruger National Park had lost all of its white rhinos, until they were re-introduced in the 1960s, and they now stand at more than 10,800 individuals! Even in light of all of the poaching, white rhino numbers are still increasing! There are more white rhinos alive today than there have been for more than a century and a half!

This however, should not be a reason for us to become complacent, as poaching is still on the increase, and at the present rate of increase, by 2016-2017, the rate of poaching is likely to equal the rate of natural increase, and then rhino numbers will start to decline...rapidly!

I won’t lie, after attending a similar talk a few months ago, I left feeling quite positive that a solution could be found and that white rhinos were not in as much danger as I had thought. And I held this belief until the presentation given on Friday night. And there was one slide that made me realise this; it was a graph showing the decline in black rhino number in Africa over the past few decades. In the space of 20 years, from 1960 to 1980, black rhino numbers dropped over 87 percent from in excess of 100,000 animals to less than 13,000!!!! Today, there are probably around 4,500 black rhinos left in the world, with just under half in South Africa; yes, there numbers are also increasing and have double over the last decade, but to have such a major crash from a population seemingly not at risk to one potentially facing extinction in only 20 years was alarming to me to say the least.  If this could happen to black rhinos that were then far more common than white rhinos are today, it is not impossible for a similar crash to happen today, unless we can fight this wave of poaching!

The point of this blog is not to go into detail about the rhino poaching debate, but to rather set the scene for what was done today, and why it was done.

Rhinos are being poached. That fact cant be denied. Why are they being poached? Well, that is a bit more debatable, but the horn of the rhino is used, and has been used for thousands of years for various purposes, of which its function as an aphrodisiac is NOT one of them! There is only one reference to the use of the horn as an aphrodisiac in India, but the main market is in Vietnam and the far east where rhino horn has been used traditionally for millennia as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), mostly as a cure for fever – something that is has been proved to combat, but not nearly as efficiently as western medicines like aspirin. There is a new market in the richer social circles where rhino horn is used as a tonic and cure for social ills like hangovers! The story that a Vietnamese politician used rhino horn to cure his cancer cannot be backed up, and searches for this person’s name lead nowhere! It is now believed that this story was fabricated to increase the demand for the product! And this would be done because rhino horn is valuable. Extremely valuable. Street-value of rhino horn (which, while keratin, is chemically very different from our fingernails and hair) is estimated to be between US$40,000-60,000, making rhinos far more valuable dead than alive. It is more valuable than ivory, and far more valuable than even cocaine, heroin or any other drug; hence the fact that it is being sourced and sold by major cartels and syndicates, just like the illegal drug trade.
So how does one go about fighting it? Well, there is no one simple answer, the various alternatives have their pros and cons, some better than others, some more contentious than others, but ultimately, one needs to try and bring the cost of living rhinos up whilst decreasing the value of rhino horn. Again, this is not the platform to enter into a discussion on the merits of different approaches, but rather to move onto to discuss what was done today as part of the fight against rhino poaching, so without further discussion, let’s move onto 5am on Saturday morning.

The first thing that I noticed at 5am was just how cold it was. Then it dawned on me that I now had to drive some 30km to get to the meeting point for our day’s adventure – it took all of 30 seconds for tears to start streaming down the side of my face due to the biting cold (but it would be worth it) as we headed out , in a bit of a rush, to meet the rest of the team at sunrise! We drove through the reserve for a bit, not seeing all that much although the intention was not to view game – we did however have a quick daylight sighting of a young serval on the road before this cat ran off into the bush – my first sighting of one in probably 2 and a half years!

Fast forward to just after 6h30 and we arrived to join the team!

So who was the team, and what was this special day all about? Basically, this whole event was put together by Wildcon (www.wildconevents.co.za), a company that specialises in assisting conservation efforts by getting groups and corporate involved in unique wildlife experiences that not only provide once in a life time opportunities to get up close to the animals, but primarily, these events serve to support conservation efforts across Southern Africa; in this case, the corporate that was involved was South African Breweries (SAB), and in particular their Sustainable Development division (SAB's Sustainable Development Page) that was looking to invest in conservation as part of their corporate social investment. In addition to this, SAB brought along with them some of their sports ambassadors to participate in this event to help further promote the plight of the rhino. For me, the greatest thing about this was the fact the SAB were able to pay for something that would otherwise not have taken place due to the expense of such operations – veterinarian cost, costs of the drugs, helicopter flight time etc etc etc! Basically, Wildcon and SAB made today’s events happen!

Today’s mission was to locate and micro-chip three rhinos in the area. This process involves locating the rhinos, tranquilising them, then, basically, inserting microchips into their horns. Sounds simple, but it is a big exercise! The purpose of the microchips is to help identify the rhinos and the rhino horns; if a rhino horn is found as it is trying to be exported from the country, it can be scanned, and if the horn is chipped, the location of where the rhino was poached can be ascertained; this actually happened in the Klaserie last year where a horn was found at OR Thambo International Airport on its way to Vietnam, and the chip indicated that it originated from the Klaserie, and this information built a much more solid case against the person holding the horn, clearly indicating that the horn had been acquired via illegal poaching.
As part of the process, the rhinos are also “ear-notched” to help identify the individuals, and to see just which rhinos in the area have been micro-chipped. Today, it was not just the chipping and notching that was taking place, but DNA samples were also being collected from the rhinos, and together with many other rhinos in the country, this information is also going into a database that will be used to fight rhino poaching, and is seen as potentially being one of the primary weapons in prosecuting poachers as no matter what the poachers/dealers do, they cannot alter or modify DNA of rhinos, and even Interpol are keen to exploit this measure in conjunction with it IUCN.

So, back to 6h30 on Saturday morning and meeting the team! After a warming cup of coffee, Colin Rowles, the warden of the Klaserie (adjoining the Timbavati) went over a basic overview of the rhinos in the area, and discussed how the helicopter would go out and locate the rhinos from the air, then come back to fetch the vet who would then go up in the helicopter and attempt to dark the rhino from the air; once the rhino was down, then the whole process was discussed in detail and safety precautions were outlined.

Klaserie Warden Colin Rowles explaining about the rhino dynamics of the area and the process to be followed in locating and darting the rhinos to be chipped today

While listening to this, the helicopter took off in search of the rhinos, with one of the craziest pilots around – what a skill he had to manoeuvre the chopper like that!

The helicopter used in the darting operation; has to be one of the craziest pilots I've seen...admittedly, i have only seen one pilot

While they were out looking for rhinos, Peter Rogers, one of the leading wildlife vets in South Africa discussed the whole darting process with us, and went through all the drugs and measures used to tranquilise the animals, and all the precautions that were made to ensure that the rhino was at the lowest risk possible, from the use of antibiotics to prevent infections and mixing the antidotes to ensure that the recovery time after the procedure was as short as possible; you could immediately tell that this man knew exactly what he was doing, and the rhinos today would be in good hands!

Wildlife vet Peter Rogers explaining about the drugs and medicines used during the operation to ensure the least amount of impacts for the rhinos being chipped

Whilst chatting, the chopper returned with the news that two groups of rhinos had been found, and the decision was made to pursue an adult female and near-adult calf, so off the chopper went with Peter, and we all loaded up into the land rovers to chase them down the road, enjoying the animals (impala, kudu, warthogs, giraffe) and scenery as we went!

The helicopter returning to collect Peter after he prepared the darts for the specific animals located

Catching up to the helicopter, we were informed that the rhino had been darted and we arrived a minute or two before the massive beast collapsed.
Following the helicopter through the reserve

The first of the rhinos darted; an adult female with a calf

To minimise stress to the rhino, a towel was placed over the rhinos eyes, and socks were used as ear plugs to dampen out the sound of the people and helicopter, but five minutes after being darted, the rhino was down, rolled into the most comfortable position and the work began!

The drugs taking effect to tranquilize the rhino - notice the socks in the ears and the towel over the eyes to help lessen the stress

To ensure the rhinos safety, the temperature was monitored throughout, and water added to cool it down if necessary, but on such a cold morning, that was unlikely! The breathing rate of the animal was also constantly monitored and drugs were on standby to bring the animal round should it be needed.
Once down, the rhino is placed upright and the work begins

Monitoring the rhinos temperature during the whole process - roughly 38 degrees Celcius

After the horn had been measured, a hole was drilled into it to insert the chip, and all the details of the animal were recorded before the ear notching took place. A special numbering system was used to identify the individual, with the location of the notches on the ears each indicative of a certain number, and by adding them up, one could determine the ID of the animal.
DNA being taken by Cindy

The dart - bulls eye!
Notice how tough the hide was to bend the dart

Drilling a hole for the microchip

Taking horn measurements

Chip inserted and ear-notching done, so a few photos with the South African cricketers before the antidote was administered (Paul Harris on his own, then Dale Steyn, Andre Fourie (SAB) and Mark Boucher below)

After the micro-chips were in place, the DNA was collected, and the bleeding ear-notches were closed up and treated to prevent infection; with the animal still being monitored, some of the team posed for photos with the animal before the antidote to the M99 was administered, and within less than a minute the rhino was back on her feet.
A bit dazed, it took her a minute or two to find herself, before she went to investigate Shaddy’s vehicle! After seeing we weren’t a threat she moved off into the bush to locate her calf and we left to go find another rhino.

First female rhino on her feet again and walking off into the bush

Whilst looking for a herd of rhinos spotted earlier, the pilot located a lone male rhino nearby, and the vet managed to dart it, so off we raced to repeat the process on him!

Second rhino darted for the day - a young male

Inserting the microchip deep in the horn

South African cricketer Justin Kemp monitoring the breathing of the rhino during the whole process

The team around the rhino before he too was woken up and ran back off into the bush

The last rhino was actually the calf of the mother that was chipped first, and despite going down in a bush, the team managed to work on him quickly and thankfully the herd of elephants that came walking past us didn’t pay any attention to us, and in a short while the calf was on her feet and making its way back to mom who remained nearby!
Elephant herd walking past us as we worked on the rhino

Whilst working on the third rhino, a breeding herd of elephants came walking past us!

To be able to be part of this and to see and touch a rhino at such close quarters was something quite amazing, and all the guests and guides alike were absolutely thrilled at the success of the morning and returned to camp beaming from ear to ear!
We headed out late on afternoon drive, and really took it easy, finding a few different elephant bulls around the camp and Argyle Dam, as well as some lovely hippos, giraffe, crocodile and impalas. The day was drawing to a close, so we all stopped for a spectacular sundowner at Lover’s Leap before moving off to a bush dinner, enjoying the wonderful nightskies and closing off proceedings from the last two days with discussions on the future of the rhinos, and what steps need to be taken to assist in the fight against poaching.
Grant, with his guests Val and John were a bit late because Machaton Male leopard stalled them on the way home, but we all had a wonderful dinner before returning to the boma at the lodge for a celebratory drink or two...

Ending off a wonderful day with a festive Bush Dinner and some traditional dancing from our ladies - and even the waiters joined in!

At about 1am, we headed to bed, and it will be interesting to see just how many of the group make the morning drive tomorrow!

For more photos of the weekend, go see this gallery on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/#!/media/set/?set=a.495307627159599.191700.215890241768007&type=1


  1. Great post! What an experience and great to see corporate getting involved with conservation. For interest; have a look at this link www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3m7FOXOLbY, it was launched at the Rio+20, United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

  2. Thank you Chad, for some really great information. I really learned a lot and I will share the information with others. Of course, the photos were amazing.

  3. Most interesting, thanks so much
    Sue and John

  4. Incredible! Thank you for sharing this fascinating work. I'm wishing the team and the rhinos great success