We’ve learnt a little about rhinos so far, and in this article we are going to take a look at how rhinos are captured and moved to new homes. Rhino capture occurs for various reasons, relocation being but one. They are also captured for veterinary treatment if they are found to have a man-induced injury such as a snare wound, bullet wounds inflicted by poachers or injuries caused by a collision with a motor vehicle.
In most cases the capture method is the same – the animal is darted from a helicopter using a compressed-gas operated dart gun firing a specially designed dart incorporating a syringe which is loaded with a cocktail of drugs. One drug is a narcotic to knock the animal out, and another is a tranquilliser so that when the animal comes round it is not aggressive. On rare occasions the animal is darted by a vet or ranger on foot. These are classic methods developed in the 1960s when Ian Player led a team in the Umfolozi Game Reserve that pioneered the present capture methods. They were assisted by a veterinary surgeon, Dr Toni Harthoorn, who developed the initial drug cocktail that proved to be so effective. The drug mixtures have been refined but in essence they perform the same way but with fewer side effects.
So – let’s go and catch a rhino…
If the operation is to dart and treat an injured animal, it will have been tracked by rangers who can give accurate location co-ordinates by GPS or, if that isn’t possible, they can talk the helicopter in to where the animal is using VHF radio links.
In our scenario we are catching a rhino that is destined for the annual Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Game Auction, so it has to be of a specific size and sex. These aspects are discussed at the crew briefing held at first light over the first cup of coffee of the day. The field staff of the game reserve in which the capture takes place also has a say, informing the capture team of any animals that are perhaps being monitored for a specific reason. There is little advantage in catching, for instance, a male rhino whose territorial behavior has been the subject of a scientific research project for some years…
After the briefing the field recovery team sets out to the area in which the capture will take place. This team consists of a stripped down 4×4 vehicle – either a Land Rover or a Land Cruiser, and a 4×4 truck carrying the capture crate into which the animal will be coaxed and transported to the game capture centre in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park where it will be held until after the auction. The stripped down 4×4 has one function – to get to the darted animal with an absolute minimum of delay. This has, on occasion, resulted in some wild rides along the rough management tracks of a game reserve, especially if the helicopter pilot reports that the darted animal is stumbling towards a donga or a similar hazard.
Once the recovery team is in position, the helicopter flies out with the game capture officer in the right hand front seat, armed with the dart gun. On spotting the target animal the pilot brings the helicopter low, flushing the rhino from cover and into whatever open ground is nearby, When it is safe to do so, he brings the helicopter even lower and closer enabling the capture officer to take aim at the rhino’s large rump – and fire the dart. On impact the dart buries itself in the rhino’s tough hide and the dart mechanism injects the drug cocktail. Within minutes the narcotic begins to take effect, and the helicopter pilot can actually herd the rhino towards a road where its recovery can be much simplified.
A more complex scenario is the removal of rhinos form the Wilderness Area in iMfolozi – no vehicles are permitted so the animal has to be lifted out by helicopter and ferried to a point where it can be loaded into a crate.