In previous newsletters we covered the capture and removal of a rhino in the conventional sense. This month we will take a look at removing a rhino from an area inaccessible to vehicles.
The Game Capture Unit of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) has some very specialised equipment designed to make game capture as efficient and stress-free as possible. The helicopter is one of these pieces of equipment. In the hands of an experienced game capture pilot, a small helicopter can drive almost any animal or herd of animals very successfully. In the rhino capture context a helicopter has long been an integral part of the operation. The helicopter used in EKZNW operations is a Hughes 500 flown by a pilot with thousands of hours logged over the game reserves of KZN.
Every rhino capture operation runs along much the same lines. A different tactic is required however, when the rhino has to be removed from an area where no vehicle access is possible or is not permitted. Parks with very rugged terrain, such as Ithala Game Reserve, or the Hluhluwe section of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park; or the Wilderness area of iMfolozi where no vehicles are allowed, require a heavy lift helicopter to remove the drugged rhino.
So – here we go… We are going to remove a black rhino from the iMfolozi Wilderness Area. The normal recovery vehicles and teams are on standby on a conveniently situated soccer field near Mpila Resort in iMfolozi, while the team that would normally ride in the stripped down recovery Land Rover are sitting in the heavy lift helicopter. This could be a SAAF Oryx, or a privately operated Russian-built Mi-8 (which is a massively powerful machine that could probably lift two rhinos with ease). In some cases we have used an American-built Bell Super Huey helicopter. In this case we are using an Mi-8. A long cable is attached to the lifting hook underneath the chopper and this in turn is connected to a large rectangular steel frame to which the cargo net is attached when lifting the rhino. This prevents the animal from being too acutely hunched up – something that could result in spinal damage.
The Hughes 500 helicopter is already out, scouting for a suitable animal. Everyone is a little keyed up. Suddenly the radios crackle – they have found and darted a black rhino and are tracking it from the Hughes 500. The Mi-8 crew start up the engines and within minutes the big chopper is beating its way to where the rhino has by now gone down. The capture team officer who darted the rhino has been dropped so he can get to the animal quickly, and the Hughes 500 lifts off and guides the Mi-8 to a landing area nearby. As the big chopper settles, the capture teams disembark and, carrying a great many bits of equipment, they run through the thick bush to where the animal is, guided by the calls of the capture officer.
Early on in the airlift operations we found that using even a lightweight crate was a problem. The massive down-draft created by the helicopter’s rotors pressed against the crate effectively made it far more heavy than it actually was. The answer was to use either a cargo net or, as was later done, simply to sling the rhino by its legs seeing as the aerial journey was only a few minutes and the vets in attendance felt that it would not affect the animal adversely. This also speeded up the operation considerably.
In this case we are using a cargo net. The rhino is prepped in the standard manner – earplugs, antibiotic injection, insecticide spray on the ticks, disinfectant on any skin abrasions, and the tip of the horn cut off. In many cases a small radio transmitter is cleverly inserted into a cavity drilled into the anterior (or front) horn for tracking purposes. The rhino is then physically rolled around until it is correctly positioned on the cargo net.
The big Mi-8 chopper is called by radio and within minutes it is hovering overhead, slowly dropping towards the site, with the steel frame dangling…Swiftly the cargo net is hooked onto the frame and the capture officer signals the chopper to lift up and take the animal away.
Ever so gently the big helicopter lifts the rhino , gains altitude and heads off to the drop zone at Mpila.
At the soccer field the chopper gently lowers the recumbent rhino to the ground, the cargo net is unhooked and the chopper goes back to the site to collect the ground teams. In the meantime the rhino is rolled free of the net, a transport crate is lowered at its snout and soon the animal is loaded and on its way to the game capture pens.
Next month we’ll take a look at the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project through which black rhinos from EKZNW protected areas are being placed on suitably large and well-protected private properties in partnership with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and with WWF South Africa as the facilitating agency.