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Anatomy of a rhino move
For World Rhino Day 2019, Pam Sherriffs takes us behind the scenes of the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project’s latest move.
I’ve been with the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project since it started in 2003, and watched many of the 200-plus rhinos we have moved. It’s still an extraordinary and deeply touching thing to see. We move about 20 black rhino at a time to new sites where they can breed and replenish their numbers. We’ve created 12 new breeding populations on more than 250 000 hectares of land.
Project leader Dr Jacques Flamand, a highly experienced wildlife veterinarian, is the driving force behind the black rhino translocations.
His first job is to identify project sites. For a site to qualify as a new home for the rhinos, it must have excellent habitat (black rhino like to browse on sweet thorn), be large enough to sustain a black rhino population that can grow to about 50 individuals (which can mean 20 000 hectares or more) and offer excellent security. The landowners also need to be prepared to commit to the responsibility of protecting rhinos for many years.
Once all the necessary approvals are in place and assessments have been done, Jacques tackles the significant logistics involved. This includes pulling together capture teams, trucks, helicopters and pilots from around the country. During a translocation, many of the rhinos are airlifted by helicopter out of terrain that is difficult for the trucks to reach.
“We work with very professional people who are excellent at what they do and really care about the rhinos. That is the most important thing,” says Jacques. It’s very satisfying when it finally happens, everything has worked out and the animals are safe and doing well. That’s when I start concentrating on the next move.”
As a wildlife vet, Jacques’ first concern is for the welfare of the rhinos during a move. He is always looking for ways to improve capture techniques, and ongoing research is carried out to make sure that translocations cause as little stress as possible to the animals.
During our latest move, project coordinator Ursina Rusch measured arterial blood gases immediately before and after each airlift to check how the rhino’s respiratory system was affected by hanging upside down from a helicopter for a short period of time.
“Oxygen, CO2, pH and lactate levels in the blood give us information on how well the respiratory system works while the rhino is flying. We are trying to learn as much as possible about the effects on the rhinos of airlifting them,” she explains.
“Our initial sense is that oxygen saturation levels of the blood were not hugely affected by the flight, but we will do further analysis to confirm this.”
Saying goodbye is never easy
The 20 animals which form our latest project population come from a game reserve where Leandri Gerber has been monitoring them daily for several years.
“These rhinos have absolutely become my life,” she says. “It’s tough to see them go, knowing that they are going to wake up in a place they don’t know, having to set up life from scratch with rhino that they may not have known before. But at the same time I know it’s the right thing for them. I’ve specifically chosen ones that I thought needed a safer space, for example ones that walked up and down fence-lines and therefore were at greater risk of being poached.”
Removing some rhinos from the existing population also stimulates growth on that game reserve, so is good for the overall black rhino population.
It’s a very emotive sight to see a rhino arriving through the air. First you hear the beat of the chopper blades, then the aircraft appears in the distance with its tiny-seeming cargo suspended beneath it. As it gets closer the size of the rhino and power of the helicopter required to carry it becomes apparent. This year was helicopter pilot James Cregeen’s first experience of carrying black rhino. He’s more used to scooping up hundreds of litres of water in a “Bambi bucket” and dropping it on to out-of-control fires.
“There’s much more at stake when you’re lifting a rhino,” he said. “It’s an endangered, living animal, not an inanimate object. It was just mind-blowing to see the passion and commitment of all involved. Everyone knows their task and just gets on with it.”
Everyone was impressed at how gently James put the rhinos on the ground, given that it was his first time working with them. “It takes very good crew communication and going very, very slowly in the final phase of the approach,” he said.
Moving rhinos is dangerous, regardless of how experienced and professional the teams are. Endangered species monitor Chris Kelly has helped at every one of our project translocations, and fitted transmitters into the horns of hundreds of sleeping rhinos.
But this year, it nearly went horribly wrong. Chris was in front of a rhino, about to insert a transmitter’s aerial into the horn, when the rhino unexpectedly woke up and lurched forward, dragging Chris into the crate.
“I didn’t see it happen but I heard a commotion behind me,” says Jacques. “I turned around and there was Chris in the middle of the crate between the front and back legs of the rhino. I rushed in and grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him out. He was shaken but everything was alright. The horn had scraped along his stomach, tearing his shirt but not penetrating his abdomen. He had also been stood on.”
Transmitters are fitted into the rhinos’ horns to allow monitors to track their movements after release and make sure that the animals are safe and settling in their new homes. It is a painless procedure, as there are no nerves in rhino horn which is made of keratin, like fingernails.
Home sweet new home
The airlifts are very dramatic, but for me the best part of a translocation is the release. I love it when all the stress of capture and moving them is over, and they can wander out into a new home and start browsing.
For the rhinos, it must be confusing and strange for a while. They tend to wander the whole new reserve before settling into home ranges.
The 20 animals released on to our latest site have largely settled, and are in very good condition.
“We usually move at the beginning of the rainy season when the vegetation is at its best,” says Jacques, “but on our latest site the habitat is so good throughout the year that we didn’t have to wait. The rhinos are all looking fat and healthy. Everything is in place for them to do well.”