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Rhino diaries: on the road and release

In this second blog on the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project's 17th rhino capture in the Eastern Cape, project population manager Ursina Rusch picks up the story as 10 rhinos head from the Eastern Cape to their release site in North West. It's a long trip with little sleep where not everything goes to plan, but it will all be worth it in the end.

Rhino transport trucks lined up on the side of the road
© Ursina Rusch / WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project
Notes from the field with the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project
Rhino transportation trucks line up at night.
© Ursina Rusch / WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project
Rhino check at the petrol station in the middle of the night.
A hard day’s night

Friday 12 April 2024, after midnight: There are three of us in the BRREP bakkie, and so we can rotate driving duties every two hours. The theory is the co-driver will keep the driver awake while the third person catches a nap on the back seat.

My main night shift starts at 1:30am but Jacques Flamand, BRREP colleague and my co-driver, is fast asleep in the passenger seat. It’s OK because, thanks to the beauty of wireless earphones, I have some good country music keeping me awake.

As I drive under a beautiful starry Free State night sky, the temperature drops to 4°C which makes for chilly checks on the rhinos every couple of hours.

The rhinos are travelling well and by 4am we complete a fuel stop and yet another check. It is always impressive to see trailers filled with fully loaded rhino crates line up at a petrol station!

By 4.48am, we are snaking our way through the dark, empty streets of Kimberley in the Northern Cape, the rhino crates are an anomalous sight against a backdrop of high-rise buildings in the business district and suburban homes.

A rhino lying down to rest in her crate
© Ursina Rusch / WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project
A rhino lying down to rest in her crate during a roadside check
Here comes the sun…

Keeping our tired heads down, and with Jacques now on driving duty, we carry on towards Vryburg. Thankfully it’s now getting light which immediately helps with the fatigue that started to set in during the dark hours.
We stop again to check on the rhinos before Vryburg to a beautiful sunrise. By this time, most of the animals have chosen to lie down in their crates to rest and are settled nicely.

The landscape has also morphed from the flat, open farmlands of the Free State to the red hues of the Kalahari with low shrubs and sandy soils.

Vryheid is the last big town before the road goes from tar to dirt (and dust!). From
here it’s still a good two hours to our final destination.

By 2pm, we are at the gates of the game reserve where the rhinos will be released but, as game capture goes, inevitably something doesn’t go to plan! In this case, the largest truck with four crates on it, gets stuck in the Kalahari sand just a few meters after entering the gates. Not what we need at this stage of proceedings!

Trucks arriving at a gate to off load rhinos
© Ursina Rusch / WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project
The rhinos arriving at the gate. Shortly after, the large truck gets stuck in the sand.

After towing the large truck out of its sandy predicament, the convoy splits up so that we can begin the release process.
Fortunately, the rhinos have travelled well and when we open the crates, most of them move off calmly. Some even stop to browse a bit (it’s been a long time since their last meal) and wander off into the bushes.
Only the bull Zikhona (read blog part 1) makes a fuss, huffing and puffing as he exits his crate and then bumping into the back of the truck where Jacques is standing – as if to say ‘I see you’ – before trotting off into the bush.
Because of the distances between release sites and the sandy roads, it’s slow going. We are only able to release one rhino an hour (and we have 10 to go!). This means that the last rhino only leaves its crate at 11pm before disappearing into the Kalahari night.

A crane offloads rhinos from a truck as dusk
© Ursina Rusch / WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project
Off-loading crates as the daylight fades and the starry Kalahari night sky appears.

After a midnight dinner back at the lodge, we are utterly shattered and can barely remember our own names. After much-needed showers and grabbing a few hours of sleep, we wake up to the good news that all the rhinos have remained within the game reserve and are exploring their new home. At capture they were all dehorned and fitted with foot collars to keep track of their movements.
Fortunately, we get a bit of recovery time as we spend another day on the reserve for post-release monitoring. Then we hit the road again for the 14-hour drive back to our homes in KwaZulu-Natal – and start to plan the next rhino move.

A sunset picture over grasslands
© Ursina Rusch / WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project
All 10 rhinos have settled and are doing well in their new home – including Zikhona!
Ursina Rusch Photo
Ursina Rusch, Black Rhino Range Expansion Population Manager

When Ursina isn’t wrestling rhinos on translocation or wielding a syringe to collect blood from rhinos for genetic testing, she can be found at the airfield flying aeroplanes and working towards her commercial pilot license.


By symbolically adopting a black rhino you’re supporting WWF’s work to protect this critically endangered species and all that coexists with it in nature.