Last year in October, we collaborated with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) on a dehorning programme. Although it has been a while, we would like to take you with us on this...

Last year in October, we collaborated with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) on a dehorning programme. Although it has been a while, we would like to take you with us on this 4-day journey into rural KwaZulu Natal.

Early on a Friday morning, the ERP-team departed from our offices in Pretoria. With much enthusiasm and excitement, we made our way down the N3 in the direction of eastern coast of South Africa. The traffic on the way did nothing to damper our spirits, as we continued on our mission to assist EKZNW in their sterling efforts to protect our natural heritage, and specifically the critically endangered black and white rhinos.

The next morning, the famously spectacular African sunrise was hidden behind a heavy, grey blanket of clouds and drizzling rain. For a while, we were concerned that we would have to call off the whole operation. But our luck did a turn for the better. By 08:00 am the rain stopped. The clouds dissipated enough for the helicopter to fly. We were back on track.

A few moments later, the distinctive sound of the Hughes 500, 5-blade propeller chopping through the air became audible. The helicopter touched down on the helipad next to our camp. Instructions on the day’s approach and safety were given to all involved in the operation. From here on out, it was all systems go, all day long.

The helicopter took off again with a highly skilled veterinarian from EKZNW. The ground team jumped into the vehicles and headed out. It did not take long before the radio crackled into life from up above. A rhino had been spotted. The pilot directed us into the best possible position. Once our ground team was in position, the veterinarian darted the rhino with a tranquiliser from the helicopter. Now, we had to wait for the drugs to kick in, but at the same time keep track of where the rhino went in the meantime. A bird’s-eye view is invaluable in these situations. The pilot and the veterianarian kept us updated on all the movements and made sure we were as close as possible without stressing the beast.

Once it was obvious that the drugs had taken effect, our ground team disembarked from the vehicles and hurried to the drugged rhino still moving, but slower and dazed. A rope lassoed around the hindleg slowed the rhino’s progress and kept it in a clear and open area for us to work in. Even a drugged rhino is incredibly strong. At one end of the rope, a 1.7 tonne, drugged behemoth was trying to get away. At the other end, a group of fully-grown men was dragged after the rhino through bushes until the rhino came to a standstill.

As soon as the rhino was immobilised, the well-trained ground teams from EKZNW and ERP covered the rhino’s eyes and plugged the ears to minimise the stress. Then, with careful measurement and a steady hand, a chainsaw removed the rhino’s horns. As much as possible had to be removed to reduce the temptation for poachers. It is important not to remove the base of this keratin structure to ensure that the horn is still able to grow.

With the horn removed, the next step was to smooth off the base with a specialised grinding disk, much like a manicure. Measurements were taken to see how much of the horn was left and to allow us to work out the growth rate at the next dehorning. As soon as the horns had been removed and packed away safely, the veterinarian was satisfied with a job well done, and the ground team safely on the vehicles again, the rhino was given a reversal drug to wake it up.

This procedure was repeated throughout the course of the next few days. Both black and white rhinos were dehorned as part of the ongoing efforts to keep these iconic African species alive.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has an ongoing rhino dehorning programme, through which they intend to keep all rhinos in the province dehorned. Although dehorning rhinos is not a guaranteed method to stop poaching, it does lower the temptation for poachers and the risk of poaching significantly, when it is done in conjunction with other management and security interventions, helping securing the safety of these magnificent animals.

Dehorning rhinos is a costly affair. And is not a one-time thing. It needs to be done continuously. In this operation, ERP funded the helicopter time and all the costs of veterinary drugs, amounting to R120,000 (USD8,600 or EUR7,600). On top of this, we also had a 3-man team and a support vehicle on the ground to assist with the operation. But it is worth it, if it can help keep these wonderful animals safe and alive.

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