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Blog: From the frontline of black rhino conservation

“Pictures can’t express the awe of feeling the heat of life coursing through its tough hide”, writes Melissa du Preez.

By Melissa du Preez

As I write this, I’m overlooking the hilly landscape of one of WWF’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP) sites in KwaZulu-Natal on a Sunday afternoon. A blistering cold front has swept the province and my colleagues and I have been waiting four hours for the heads-up that rangers have found the final of three black rhinos to be captured and relocated in the hope that we can turn the tide on rhino horn poaching.

Yesterday, a frosty Saturday, we waited six hours for the first sighting when they would be airlifted to the drop zone (where we’re stationed), before being loaded in specially-made crates for the trek to a safer home.

It was 2:30pm when we got the first call. The rhino had been darted and it was time to move.

The “Huey” sets off to fetch the first rhino. (Melissa du Preez/WWF-SA)

The helicopter team race to fetch the rhino while we await the arrival. Dud-dud-dud-dud-dud-dud – we hear the helicopter long before we spot it and when we do, it’s surreal. Below the helicopter hangs our grey friend. It’s both terrifying and spellbinding.

The black rhino hangs as the “Huey” approaches the drop zone. (Melissa du Preez/WWF-SA)

My first question was whether the way they’re transported – padded cuffs around its legs to spread its weight evenly – was painful. BRREP project leader, Dr Jacques Flamand assures me that it’s not. Before BRREP began to use this method, it was thoroughly tested on team members to get first-hand experience.

Ear plugs and a blindfold are used to minimise exposure and keep the rhino calm as it’s moved. (Melissa du Preez/WWF-SA)

As the helicopter nears, the ground team heaves into action wordlessly. Each person knows their job, rehearsed time and again for this very occasion. It’s much like watching an orchestra as the conductor waves his baton, each musician weaving into the symphony to create a harmonic production.

Hands reach skyward to receive her as she’s lowered gently to the ground.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife vet, Rowan Leeming, is part of the ground capture team to make sure the rhino is healthy. (Melissa du Preez/WWF-SA)

The suspension cord is removed and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife vet Rowan Leeming makes sure she’s doing well. She’s given an ear notch number – something that all BRREP-captured rhinos are given to identify and monitor them – and sprayed with an insecticide to kill ticks (important for keeping parasites out of the boma where they’ll be kept) and disinfect any wounds – before being dehorned to make it less of a target to poachers. The horn and its shavings are carefully collected, labelled and sent away (a closely-guarded secret location). It’s given three shots: an anti-inflammatory, antibiotic and sedative.

The rhino is given an antiseptic, antibiotic and anti-inflammatory by vets. (Melissa du Preez/WWF-SA)

A crane creeps forward and positions the crate facing the rhino and its doors are opened.

She’s about to get her wakeup call.

Ground crew position themselves on either side and begin to rock her awake.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s head of capture, Jeff Cooke keeps a hawk-like gaze over the process. With him watching, there’s no room for error.

It’s nearly a minute before she shuffles to her feet and they guide her inside, sealing the door behind her.

The rhino is guided into the crate as she comes out of her sleep. (Melissa du Preez/WWF-SA)

With the process over, the crate is loaded and she’s off to the bomas before heading to her new home.

My WWF colleague, Andrea Weiss’s eyes are glistening. It’s her first experience of a capture, too. For the team here, it’s a well-oiled machine that’s become almost a ritual but for us first-timers, it’s overwhelming.

Seeing the pictures and video of a capture can’t express the awe of feeling the same wind that keeps the helicopter aloft on your skin, or the weightiness of the cable that holds the rhino securely or, most importantly, to feel the heat through its tough hide as blood courses through its body.

Without time to catch our breath, the helicopter has headed out again to collect our second rhino of the day: a bull. He’s magnificent. Large and proud, healthy and beautiful.

As the sun begins to set, the trucks head off.

To cap off a remarkable afternoon we head back to camp. In the fading sunset, we glimpse another rare site: Painted against the sunset strolls a black rhino – a truly rare opportunity given their solitary nature.

Black rhino sighting while headed back to camp. (Ursina Rusch/WWF-SA)

Thinking back to yesterday’s adventure, it’s hard to imagine experience anything like this again.

We’ve just received the green light that our third, and final, target has been found.

We’re headed to the drop site now and BRREP coordinator Ursina Rusch, is given a front row seat in the helicopter – a lifelong dream – where she was able to film this breath-taking scene:

This will be the rhinos’ first step of their journey. The final leg will be their new homes where they’ll be nurtured and protected in the hopes that we’ll see some new calves in the coming years. It can take up to two years for them to breed so it’ll be a long wait.

If successful, these calves will breathe life to the continued growth of SA’s black rhino numbers.

Melissa du Preez is a communications officer at WWF South Africa.
Ear plugs and a blindfold are used to minimise exposure and keep the rhino calm as it’s moved.

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