Tagging along to tag a rhino

I was recently given the most awe-inspiring, humbling opportunity to get up close and personal with a very special animal ….. the highly endangered white rhino. These magnificent, gentle creatures are being murdered in their hundreds for their horns. So as part of the ongoing endeavours to save these animals, Reg and I were invited along with a team that were going to dart and microchip two white rhinos in the Sanbona Wildlife Reserve.

We were only allowed to publish the photos on condition that we censored the Rhino’s horn so as to not give away too much detail on her horn. So where you see black blocks on my pictures please forgive me – it’s to help protect the Rhinos!

Our day started bright and early, with us leaving the camp around 6am. The temperature the day before had been a scorching 39°C, but we woke up to cloudy skies and much cooler temperatures. This boded well for our adventure ahead.

Whilst the wildlife team went in search of the rhinos we were going to microchip, we went on a game drive, enjoying the sights and sounds of the bush. We also had to wait for the vet, Dr Willem, to arrive from Oudtshoorn, a 2 hour drive away.

Once Dr Willem arrived we had a briefing with all the players involved. I was surprised by how many people this ‘operation’ needed as there were around 20 of us in total. There was Dr Willem Burger, with a student vet as his assistant, a representative from Cape Nature Conservation, the general manager of the reserve Paul Vorster, the head of wildlife Jannie Swanepoel, the head of conservation Pascale Swanepoel and numerous rangers from Sanbona. We also had a digger loader on standby, with the anti poaching team. This was in case the rhino fell asleep in a hard to reach area and needed to be moved!  

 The digger loader with part of the team

Dr Willem took us through the whole process, showing us the different darts and gun that would be used. He spoke about the importance of the dosage of the tranquiliser drug, the monitoring equipment, saline bags and oxygen tanks that would be used to monitor and maintain the rhino’s oxygen levels, heart rate and general well being. He showed us the mask and earplugs that were necessary to ensure the rhino couldn’t hear or see anything that could stress it further.  

   Dr Willem with his tranquiliser gun

Then we had Cape Nature Conservation chat to us about the importance of DNA testing and micro chipping. He showed us the sealed kit that had been carefully labeled by his department in order to record the various samples of blood, hair (taken from the tail) and shavings from the horn.

  Part of the team getting ready for the briefing

While all the equipment was being checked we got a call from the scouts …. They had found our female rhino!

Dr Willem and Paul went ahead with the rest of us following a safe distance away. Once they got closer they got out of the vehicle and on foot, approached the group of five rhinos. With a soft ‘pop’ the tranquiliser gun was fired and some of the rhinos scattered.  Luckily for us, our rhino didn’t run and remained in the open area. It wasn’t long before the tranquiliser took effect and she slowly went down.

This was when everyone sprang into action. The mask and ear plugs were put on immediately and the drip and oxygen tubes were inserted. I thought that we would just observe the process from a distance but this wasn’t the case. We were told to come closer and participate. As we approached this beautiful animal, tears came to my eyes as this was such a huge animal in front of me, it was such a humbling experience.

Everyone springing into action, the mask and earplugs were fitted first
 Oxygen being administered   

One of our friends was given the task of measuring her breathing, another friend had to hold the saline solution and I was asked to monitor the heart rate and oxygen machine. This was attached to her eyelid and I had to press down gently and constantly, throughout the whole process.

Checking her vital signs are good and getting ready to insert the microchip
  I’m taking my job very seriously while measurements, blood samples and hair are all being recorded

The entire ‘operation’ had to take around 30 minutes, anything much longer and we could be putting the rhino’s health at risk. Blood samples were taken, the tail hairs were clipped and stored and the insertion of 3 microchips was in full process. Both horns needed a chip and the 3rd chip was inserted behind her ear.  In order to identify their rhinos, the left ear was notched in a particular place. The vet alerted me that she might ‘jump’ as it was a bit like having your ears pierced. After notching they quickly rubbed the ear with some unpronounceable cream that immediately stopped the ear bleeding and would alleviate any possible pain on her ear.  They used a hand drill to drill into her horn which is made of keratin, the same protein that makes up nails and hair, so there’s no pain at all. The microchips were inserted, the holes in the horns were closed with a bit of putty and she was ready to be woken up.

All through this process I was reporting back to Dr Willem on her oxygen and heart rate. At one stage her oxygen levels dropped, I alerted Dr Willem and he quickly injected her, to ‘waken her slightly’ – he warned me that because she was a little more alert she might move a bit more, quite scary when you think of how close I was to her front legs! I was amazed at how soft she felt behind her ears and between her front legs – not something you’d expect from a 3 ton rhinoceros!

Drilling into her horn, which is made of keratin, the same protein as our hair and nails
 I’m feeling a little more easy as everything has been completed, I even have time for a smile!

We were then all told to go back to our vehicles and Dr Willem administered the antidote. At first there was no movement, then her one ear started twitching and before long she was up on her feet and off to find her family.  A textbook operation had been successfully performed!

Our female fully recovered

Now it was time to find the second rhino that needed micro chipping, but this wasn’t going to be as easy. It took a while for the scouts to find him because he was in very dense bush. But before everyone could get to the small group, the rhinos were spooked by a herd of elephants and scattered. This meant our male rhino was somewhat uneasy with both the elephants and the various vehicles. So it was decided that we’d leave them and return a couple of hours later. But this wasn’t meant to be, it took about 5 hours just to find him again and he still appeared uneasy. Eventually at 6pm that evening, the operation was called off.

It was a real eye opener seeing one operation performed flawlessly and then the second attempt that, no matter how hard everyone had tried, just wasn’t meant to be.

I was really blown away by the experience and with how many people were involved and how professional everyone was. It was amazing to see so many people come together with one noble purpose, to save the rhino. I’ve definitely come away from this with an even deeper respect for all those who work so tirelessly in conservation.

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