Last month we darted a white rhino prior to loading and moving it. This month we will describe the loading and transport process. It must be noted that the process is identical for both black- and white rhinos. In fact we have had to use images of a black rhino being loaded in this article…
We left our rhino having been darted from a helicopter and with the ground team moving rapidly in to secure the animal. The chopper also acts as an aerial observation post by guiding the ground team in to where the rhino is. It’s an exciting ride for the recovery team and one never knows quite what to expect – the rhino might be still active, or it might have gone down under the influence of the narcotic. Our visitors too occasionally get caught up in the event when their tranquil drive through the game reserve is interrupted by a fast moving 4×4 filled with villianous-looking but uniformed rangers rushing past them, followed by an enormous truck with a massive crate on the back! A few very lucky ones have had the whole event happen right in front of them and this, we are sure, must have provided a never-to-be-forgotten experience.
First prize is to find the animal collapsed in an open area easy to access. There are, of course, many different scenarios to this though. It could be comatose in a thicket of thorn scrub, or it might have wandered along a deepening donga, or it might still be a bit frisky – a scenario that requires the utmost care and courage from the team. Generally, by the time the recovery team arrives the narcotic has taken full effect and if the animal is not down and out, it is literally on the verge of collapse.
To everyone’s relief our animal is in an open area but is still on its feet. The chopper lands and the Rhino Capture Officer joins the recovery team. One man edges quietly towards the animal, a dark cloth in his hands which will be slung over the rhino’s eyes to protect them and to eliminate visual stimuli that could result in a charge. Other members of the team move in with a hefty rope which is quickly fixed to one of the animal’s hind legs, and the other end tied to a tree or the bumper of the big 4×4 Mercedes truck carrying the transport crate. Once this is done the animal cannot go anywhere and is gently shoved onto is its side. Its legs are carefully positioned and the animal is then rolled upright.
A lot of things happen at once during this process, and the capture team takes great care to minimise any additional aspects that could stress the rhino further. A pair of large ear-plugs are pushed into the rhino’s ears to dull any noise. In this well-trained team each man knows his job and there is no shouting. The dart is removed and the animal gets an injection of a broad spectrum antibiotic through the same opening made by the dart. This is to ward off any possible infection.
The big 4×4 Mercedes truck manoeuvres into position and the sturdy transport crate is gently deposited at the rhino’s nose. Researchers working on rhino biology get busy taking blood samples, fecal samples, and parasites such as ticks. A team member sprays an insecticide onto the worst of the animals tick infestations and any cuts or scrapes are sprayed with antiseptic.
The highly experienced Capture Officer constantly monitors the animal’s breathing and blood pressure – this can be gauged from tell-tale veins in the animal’s ears. If the animal is found to be a heavily pregnant cow, the team immediately packs up and leaves. The Capture Officer injects the antidote and watches the animal to see that she is OK. This obviates a cow giving birth in the pens and possibly rejecting the calf – leaving humans with the exacting task of raising it. This has been done in the past but is an enormously time and money consuming activity.
In the meantime a sturdy rope is passed through an eyelet in the front of the crate and noosed around the rhino’s jaw just behind the posterior horn.
The other end is fastened to the big 4×4 Mercedes truck. When all is ready the Capture Officer administers, into a prominent vein in the ear, the antidote to the narcotic. Within a short time the rhino’s breathing becomes deeper which is a sure sign that the antidote is taking effect. Three minutes after the injection the rhino gets a jab from an electric cattle prod which gets it onto its feet. At the same time the Capture Officer signals to the driver of the truck who begins to gently reverse the truck, pulling the rhino forwards and into the crate. As soon as the animal is well inside, the doors are closed and secured, the cloth covering the eyes is removed using a hooked steel rod, and the rope is flicked loose and removed.
The truck meanwhile moves around to reverse close to the crate and begins the loading process. The animal is transported with its backside facing the cab of the truck so if there is a sudden stop the animal is cushioned by its own rear-end.
There are two of these big 4×4 trucks each with a different mechanism for loading the crate. They are used depending on the terrain. One has a large heavy-duty hydraulic crane mounted behind the cab, while the other has an ingenious, hydraulically operated tilt mechanism which lifts one end of the crate and then hauls the entire thing upwards onto rollers and onto the bedding frame.
Once the crate is properly secured the driver heads off to the Centenary Game Capture Centre where the rhino will be offloaded and released into a holding pen or “boma”. The ground crew hop onto their vehicles and either head off to catch the next rhino or head back to base.
Next month we’ll take a look at the operation in place to remove rhinos from the iMfolozi Wilderness area where no vehicles are permitted.