Relocating African Rhinos: The process (part 2 of 2)

Rhinos are killed in South Africa at a rate of three a day and the conservation community is driven by differences: political rivalries, personality clashes, competition for resources and recognition, and disagreements over game management, tourism and hunting. The most contentious issues concerning rhinos, for example, are whether to dehorn them and what to do with those horns. Opponents say it deprives the animals of their primary means of defence against other animals, mutilates the animal, and that legal trade sends a mixed message to customers in Asia even as conservationists are trying to blunt demand by stigmatizing horn buying. Proponents say it deters poachers, as it lowers their profits, and that the trade is the only way to ensure that rhinos are more valuable alive than dead.

The process of transporting rhinos is tedious one and the window of opportunity is narrow. Any day the scorching heat, followed by torrential rains, will make the road through the swamps impassable and may spoil the opportunity or increase the risk. And no one knows whether politics will interfere or if poachers come again.

A general team includes veterinarians, a doctoral candidate doing research, a helicopter pilot, drivers, and game capturers who by necessity become expert at managing the paperwork for the permitting and export process.

The safe capture process of rhinos begins at dawn. A helicopter with its doors removed, hovers just above the rhinos, and one of the vets uses a compressed-air dart gun to deliver a dose of a sedative thousands of times stronger than morphine. It hits a rhino's rump with a thwack and within moments the bulky animal starts getting unconscious. A blindfold is placed over their eyes which relaxes them. A researcher takes blood samples, to measure and compare stress levels later. Other puts on a plastic sleeve the length of his arm and extract a fist-size stool sample. Another notches the rhino's ears which is a form of identification. All the while, workers keep their palms on her flank, her face and the hump at the nape of her neck, to reassure her.

White rhinos have two, a long one above the mouth and a smaller one between the eyes. (Black rhinos also have two, but front and back can vary in proportion to each other.) Authorized doctors generally carry out the dethroning of the horn with proper medical assistance. It has to come off before the rhino goes into the container, or they might break it and injure themselves. A number is marked on the hide to keep track and push the rhino back on its feet. Rhino’s hind legs are tied and head leashed and is carefully maneuvered towards the metal container. The process is repeated till the required number of rhinos are carefully captured and their horns removed medically. Once the safe number is reached the road transportation begins.

Most of these Rhinos’ safe final release center is in Botswana, the Texas-sized country has just 2.25 million people in central Africa. Botswana lost its rhinos to poachers twice before, in the '70s and the '80s, but it has been re-establishing the population since the early 2000s. With strict local laws and favorable policies, the rhino conservation efforts have seen a positive uplift in the past decade.

After reaching the safe release site, the rhinos are darted and led out of the containers, tipped onto their sides again to have more blood drawn, their ears notched to conform to the Botswana system, their ankles belted with GPS monitors. After a while laying still on the ground, the rhinos slowly get up after they are given the antidote to the sedative and their blindfolds are peeled off. Slowly, one by one, rhinos stirs and stand up. They lumber, heavy-limbed, towards a forest of darkness, and disappear into it.

Sorai stands for Save our Rhinos Africa & India and we support “The Boucher Legacy” foundation in South Africa who is working day and night to support the rhinos and rangers protecting them. You can directly or get Sorai merchandise and be a part of this movement.


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