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A lofty view of black rhino conservation
Recently, I was given a front row seat to the capture and release of WWF's 11th Black Rhino Range Expansion Project population in KwaZulu-Natal.
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.
My colleagues and I have been waiting four hours for news that rangers have found the last of three black rhinos to be relocated to the 11th BRREP site. All in the quest to combat rhino horn poaching.
Yesterday, a frosty Saturday, we waited six hours for the first sighting. The rhinos would be airlifted to a drop zone, 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 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 see it and when we do, it’s surreal.
Below the helicopter hangs our grey friend. It’s both terrifying and spellbinding.
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.
It's go time
As the helicopter nears, the ground team heaves into action wordlessly. Each person knows their job, rehearsed time and again for this very occasion. Hands reach skyward to receive her as she’s lowered gently to the ground.
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 - then dehorned to make it less of a target to poachers.
The crane carrying the crate positions itself in front of the rhino as she gets her wakeup call.nGround 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. As she shuffles to her feet, they guide her inside, sealing the door behind her.
With the process over, the crate is loaded and she’s off to the bomas before heading to her new home.
My 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.
The first step
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’s filmed this breath-taking scene:
This is the first step of their journey. The final leg will be their new homes where they’ll be nurtured and protected in the hopes of seeing 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.
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