ANIMAL FACTS: THE WHITE RHINOS OF KZN

The white rhinoceros must surely be the most iconic animal in this province. In this series of articles we will explore the history of rhino conservation in KZN, and move on to take a look at their habits and behavior.

In the years leading up to the 1920s rhinos had been hunted almost to extinction by successive waves of explorers, settlers and hunters who moved into their ranges. The efforts of the old Natal administration and later the Natal Parks Board to conserve the species are the stuff of legend. Briefly put, a game conservation officer – a Mr H Vaughan Kirby – reported to the Natal Provincial Government in the early 1920s that there were only about 25 white (or square-lipped) rhinos left in the uMfolosi Game Reserve. These animals were duly given absolute protection. We have a sneaky suspicion that this canny gentleman deliberately under-reported the true situation in order to goad the administration into action… The tactic certainly worked.

White rhino numbers increased rapidly until they began overflowing the largely unfenced Umfolosi Game Reserve and causing more than a little upset in neighbouring community lands. In the 1960s the then Director of the Natal Parks Board, Colonel Jack Vincent, instructed his staff to examine ways of catching, removing and distributing the so-called “problem animals” and thereby spreading the species more widely. “The Colonel” was a far-sighted, canny man and his chief concern was the “inadvisability of keeping so many valuable eggs in one basket…”

With the unqualified support of the then Admininstrator of Natal Mr Douglas Mitchell, “The Colonel” issued instructions to his staff.

What followed created the white rhino legend of KZN conservation. Rangers in the uMfolosi Game Reserve, under the direction of “the Colonel” and led by Ian Player, assisted by a vet from East Africa Dr Anthony Harthoorn (who developed the amazing drug cocktail M99 with which a rhino could be immobilized and safely moved around), thought up and tried different ways of capture and relocation until they hit upon a classic method. With some refinements made possible by modern technology, this method is still in use today. (We will enlarge on this in next month’s article.)

Toni Harthoorn, left, and Ian Player sit astride a semi-immobilised white rhino in Imfolozi game reserve during Operation Rhino in the early 1960s.

White rhinos were then moved to other selected game reserves all over southern Africa. It is fact that Umfolosi provided the initial stock for the re-populating of the Kruger National Park, Botswana, Mozambique and many other countries. Animals were also sent to selected zoos all over the world – a practice deemed advisable at the time but one long since abandoned. (See http://www.rhinoresourcecenter.com/pdf_files/124/1246117964.pdf for Ian Players report)

Basically, a rhino was darted by a man on foot (which provided some classic moments of comedy and high drama), tracked by horsemen until the drug took effect, then coaxed into a crate, loaded onto the back of a lorry and taken to its next home. One of the first refinements was to use a stripped-down, doorless Land Rover to carry the shooter who would fire the dart from a fast moving, bumping vehicle into the rump of a running rhino – and this too provided its moments of hilarity and drama. A memorable event was the vehicle, in hot pursuit of a running rhino, making a very sharp right turn to at the moment Ian Player was semi-standing to fire the dart. Player and his dart gun were catapulted into the very thicket the driver was trying to avoid…

Ian Play tries out a new dart gun, watched by John Clark

It is a point worth noting that in those early days the Hluhluwe and Umfolosi Game Reserves were not one big unit as they are today. They were linked, however, by a piece of state land known as the Corridor. Eventually, after much lobbying, the central government agreed in the 1980s to hand this land over to the Natal province in order to facilitate the creation of one big protected area which became the 96,000ha Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park we know today. The name “Umfolosi” was changed to the grammatically correct isiZulu form “iMfolozi”.

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