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Rhino Diaries: the capture

The Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP) has helped to grow the numbers of Critically Endangered black rhinos, even in the face of relentless poaching. Andrea Weiss was invited along to witness their 17th rhino capture operation during an exceptionally rainy week in April.

Notes from the field with the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project
Black rhino spoor in the mud
© Andrea Weiss / WWF South Africa
Black rhino spoor in the mud
Tuesday 9 April 2024: Hurry up and wait

We are in the Eastern Cape, and it’s been raining solidly all day. Ursina Rusch, BRREP population manager, says “I don’t know what the Norwegians are smoking…” as she checks the weather site yr.no for the umpteenth time.

We’ve been watching the weather predictions like hawks, and it keeps shifting from fragments of sunshine to overcast to rain and thunderstorms as an enormous cut-off low weather system moves over South Africa. It has thrown everyone’s plans into disarray. It means pilots can’t fly, film crews can’t film, and we certainly can’t catch any rhinos.

The rhinos were meant to have been airlifted today but now it’s only happening on Thursday.


Dr Flamand and Ursina Rusch wait out the bad weather on a bench.
© Andrea Weiss / WWF South Africa
Dr Jacques Flamand, pioneer of the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, and Ursina Rusch wait out the bad weather.
Wednesday 10 April 2024: The troops gather

Even though the skies have yet to clear, at last the Norwegians are predicting a clear(ish) but chilly day – which is ideal for catching rhinos, says Dr Jacques Flamand, who has been the leading force behind BRREP’s work for two decades (the project celebrated its 20-year anniversary last year). This work not only benefits rhinos but all the other creatures that depend on large protected areas – from dung beetles to vultures.

As with most things in life there are uncertainties. Will the team be able to find all 10 in a day? What happens if they don’t? Only tomorrow will tell.

Just before noon, the SANParks wildlife veterinary service trucks roll in, followed in quick succession by two Squirrel helicopters which have flown in from George, and bakkies bearing conservation staff from Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA) among others.

By nightfall, every single bed in the research centre is spoken for and brown canvas tents have sprung up outside to accommodate the overflow. Everywhere you look there are huddles of people talking to each other – pilots, vets, observers, conservation staff, film crew – making their plans for the big day.


The rhino trucks arrive ahead of the next day’s capture.
© Andrea Weiss / WWF South Africa
The rhino trucks arrive ahead of the next day’s capture.

At 6pm, we’re all called inside for a briefing. Dr Dave Zimmerman, the vet overseeing the capture, and operations manager Noah Konaite, have a large team with them. For starters, each of the three trucks needs three drivers for the 20-hour road trip that lies ahead to take the rhinos to their new home on the far side of the country.

During the briefing, every eventuality is covered – from what happens if a member of the capture team gets an accidental dose of rhino sedative through a scratch from a thorn bush (*short answer is they’ll need an antidote) to who gets a seat in the choppers and who is fitting the foot collars.

And, just to clarify, the rhinos are only airlifted for a short period of time as they are moved from the inaccessible terrain to a drop site where they will be loaded into crates for the long trip north.

It is, as Jacques has said repeatedly, the quickest and kindest way to get the job done.

A black rhino stands and watches from the bush
© Andrea Weiss / WWF South Africa
The day before the release, we spot Emtini in the distance. He’s a 16-year-old, dehorned bull who was not earmarked for this move and his expression is almost one of relief to be staying in his bushy home.
Thursday 11 April 2024: Men (& women) at work

Just after 5am, the first alarms are going off. Sunrise is at 6.30am. There’s a rush on ablutions, hot water for flasks and a quick breakfast. I see one of the pilots cramming white bread sandwiches into a lunchbox with practised speed.

The darting and spotting helicopters aim to be airborne by 7am. Once a rhino is spotted the airlift chopper will take off to drop the team whose job it is to fix the strops to their legs and take blood samples. Ursina and the Australian film crew will be going along, as will a second chopper to film from the air.

In the meantime, Jacques drives us down to the drop site to wait for the first rhino to come in. Right now, the most sought-after item is a cup of coffee.

It all goes quickly – by 8.30am the first rhino has been darted. It’s a cow known as Kholo! There’s some excitement about this as the female rhinos that have been chosen for this move are very specific. They must be old enough to have left their mothers but still too young to have had a calf of their own and are potentially harder to find. Today’s job is to find five cows and five bulls.

A black rhino after being dehorned
© Peter Chadwick / WWF South Africa
After dehorning and all the veterinary work, the team rights the rhino ready for transfer into a crate.

Seeing a rhino fly in is an almost impossible sight. As the heavy payload (of up to 1.2 tons) is lowered by the helicopter, Jacques reaches up to catch her by the horn and she is gently guided to the ground. The team quickly gets to work.

First (and for her own safety) the buzz of a chainsaw as she is dehorned, followed by a quick treatment for ticks, the taking of blood samples, fitting of a foot collar and then the truck moves in to drop the rhino crate near her head.

The team roll her upright and position her head just inside the crate before SANParks vet Dr Angela Bruns administers the antidote and gives the countdown.

Kholo wakes up and staggers to her feet as she is “walked” into the crate with a line of men pulling a rope at the one of the crate as the rest of the team push her from behind. It takes just a few seconds before steel bars are slotted in behind her.

It’s a tight fit, a bit like a horse box, but that means she won’t injure herself during the journey to her new home.

9.20am: What’s in a name?

Specialist ecologist with ECPTA Dr Dean Peinke and I are talking about the naming of rhinos. Dean explains that they not only give their notched rhinos a number but also a name which makes it easier for the rangers and monitors to connect with their charges.

A black rhino being raised by a helicopter
© Andrea Weiss / WWF South Africa
The 12-year-old bull called Xhosa who doesn’t have a tail comes in to land.

In particular, we are talking about a bull called Xhosa which is the third rhino to be captured this morning. Dean has the list of the rhinos that have been selected for the move, and he has a bit of a soft spot for Xhosa for several reasons.

At 12 years old, he’s just become a confident bull – and Dean spotted him just the day before proudly displaying his horn (which will come off as soon as he lands). He’s also easily recognisable because he doesn’t have a tail. Nobody quite knows why – “maybe a jackal bit it off when he was young”, says Dean.

I ask Jacques what he thinks about the naming of rhinos and he agrees. “Some people say it’s unscientific to name them, but I don’t think it matters. It’s much easier to remember a name than a number,” he says.

I’m only too happy! For a lay person like me, the names make it so much easier to tell this story.

Aikona, Zikhona!

And then, there’s always one.

First up were two cows called Kholo and Nyanga. Third came Xhosa and number four was Ben (who is inside his crate by 11.03am).

He is soon followed by five-year-old Natalie and a bull called Thabang. There’s a bit of confusion about No 7 as she has a torn ear which means her notch is no longer visible. They will have to check her chip details to determine whether it’s iSipho or iMara. Number eight, Judy, lands at just before 3pm.

A rhino bull runs after waking up
© Peter Chadwick / WWF South Africa
Zikhona the bull that woke up too soon.

Number nine is a six-year-old bull called Zikhona.

The first inkling that he might be trouble is when the pilot radios ahead to say that the team are not sure if he got the full dose of sedative. They’ve also had a bit of trouble extricating him from the bush and so he’s lost his eye cover.

I hear the chopper in the distance and watch as the rhino comes flying in, rotating slowly overhead. Just before he touches ground, I catch a glimpse of his beady, brown eye which looks distinctly alert.

As the team on the ground gets to work, there’s a sudden shout and people scatter. Zikhona is up and attempting a getaway. The capture team hang on to his leg strop for dear life as they work to control him. Jacques runs forward – I learn later to cover Zikhona’s eyes which will help to subdue him. After giving everyone the runaround, the rhino is back on the ground and sedated again so that he can be safely loaded.

It's a salutary reminder that game capture is dangerous work, and you always have to be on your toes.

A rhino held down by rangers ready for transport.
© Peter Chadwick / WWF South Africa
Jacques and the crew breathe a sigh of relief once Zikhona is subdued again before he is loaded into a crate. He was just as feisty on his release.
It takes a village…

By 5pm, Brad, the last rhino, has been loaded and the crew are preparing to get on the road. There’s only time for a quick group picture, a round of applause, and a few goodbyes.

By late afternoon, new people had begun to appear at the drop site – men with guns. This is the security service that has been hired to safeguard the rhinos on the road. They form a separate huddle with the drivers for a security briefing about the trip ahead.

I watch as the three, heavily loaded trucks drive off and follow slowly behind them, splashing through the puddles in the gravel road from the rain of the preceding days. Jacques and Ursina are driving behind me.

As we approach the main road, I indicate to turn left towards a hot shower and a comfortable bed. Jacques and Ursina pass me to turn right. We wave goodbye and they head off into the gathering dusk.

The next morning, as I lie in bed enjoying a cup of morning tea, I WhatsApp Ursina to find out how they’re doing. She replies to say, “the cargo is doing well – most are lying down sleeping”.

“Don’t feel guilty,” she adds (about my tea in bed). “We’ll get to do that tomorrow, hopefully.”

The BRREP team.
© Peter Chadwick / WWF South Africa
It doesn’t only take a village to raise a child, but a whole bunch of people to catch rhinos.
Andrea Weiss Photo
Andrea Weiss, Media Manager

Andrea wants to see all the wild places in South Africa cherished and protected for generations to come.

Rhinos on the road and release

Read part 2 of this series to find out what happens next