Jochen

Rhino tagging, Balule reserve, SA

18 posts in this topic

All right so just wanted to share with you all the event that I was involved in last week. It was called "Tracking the Silent African Giants". The purpose of all the events was two-fold;

 

1) Rhino darting and tagging. As much as possible in as little time as possible. Of course we had to find them first. And if we found them in group we could only do one individual (we did not want to give the other individuals any extra stress by going after them again). The reason for this part of the event; to make it more difficult for the poachers, obviously (more info below).

 

2) Put GPS collars on elephants. We had a total of eight collars. One had to replace a collar that no longer worked (on a cow). The seven others had to be put on "new" elephants, preferably bulls, no cows. This was because the organization on behalf of whom we worked (Elephants Alive) researches bulls. Up to now there has been lots more research on cows than bulls, but more about this in another post that I'll put online later on.

 

So this series only covers the rhino tagging.

 

The even took place in Balule and Klaserie private reserves. These reserves have open borders to Kruger National Park, I think you all know. Thanks to a larger budget for anti-poaching measures, the private parks (Sabi Sands, Timbavati, Klaserie, Umbabat and Balule) are doing much better when it comes to protecting rhinos, compared to the National Park itself. An estimate is that there are five times more rhinos in the private reserves. But that estimate could maybe even paint a too positive picture of the National Park. If I drive around in the park, I can't find any active rhino middens, or even drag marks / scent trails.

 

However, the fact that things are better in private parks does not mean that they have it easy. Certainly not a reserve like Balule, adjacent to the R40 asphalt road (west boundary), close to two major villages (Phalaborwa, Hoedspruit), with a railway line in the middle, with a border next to a military base, etc... it even has an unfenced border with a local community!

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We had following team members:

 

  • The Hover.co.za chopper team, with two helicopters and two pilots. They have a lot of experience with this type of assignment.
  • Some highly renowned veterinarians, with top-of-the-bill Cobus Raath, who has already done more than 3000 rhino dartings.
  • Ian Michler, editorial writer for Africa Geographic, and maker of the docu film Blood Lions (about the canned hunting industry in South Africa). If you have not seen the movie yet; please go see it asap! Link; Http://www.bloodlions.org
  • Six nature guides (including myself), with head guide being Sean Pattrick (co-author of the book "Game Ranger In Your Backpack", a very popular book that's also on sale in the shops in the National Park). Link; Https://www.amazon.de/Game-Ranger-Yo.../dp/1920217061

 

An event such as this one has a considerable price tag. We were accompanied by members of an organization that sponsored the entire event; all costs such as the camp, meals, cars, gasoline, helicopters, veterinarians, pilots, etc ... including the cost of the GPS collars.


Notes in advance;

  • Some members of this organization prefer to stay anonymous, hence I will not mention the names of these members, and hence why some faces have been blurred on some pictures. I do not know exactly who would like to stay anonymous and who doesn't mind, so I just blurred them all. I hope you understand.
  • I could only carry one camera. I chose the 5DmkII with 17-40mm L . So all photos below are wide-angle photos. Sorry if the action seems a bit far away sometimes . But if you know wide angle lenses then you know how close to the action I was ;)
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We started very early every morning (sunrise; 6h30). After a small briefing we flew/drove out, let's say around 7AM. We only rolled back in at around 1PM-2PM, so it was quite long but it flew by like a snap of your fingers. 

 

One team (with three game-drive vehicles) followed the helicopter who did the rhino darting. The other team, with as many vehicles, followed the helicopter who did the elephant darting. We agreed to switch around mid-morning, and this "scenario" was repeated three days in a row.

 

The vehicles were in permanent contact with each other, but only the leading vehicle had a ground-to-air radio. Tracking the helicopter was not really easy. As long as we could drive on the small two-tracks it was OK, but of course we had to go off-road to get to the animals. Given Balule contains a lot of scrub and that there's plenty of rocks it was quite a dangerous venture (for the cars, I mean). For three days in a row, by noon, my arms were tired from "working" my steering wheel.

 

I think my Land Cruiser (with 410,000km on the counter, all of them done on rough terrain!) deserves a medal. It had the least difficulties of staying with the chopper. The guests on my vehicle started naming it "The Beast". I think I'll keep that name until it kicks the bucket (I guess in about another 400.000km or so).

 

Fortunately, the pilots were very experienced. They skilfully separated rhinos from their groups, anaesthetised them with one well-aimed shot of a darting gun, and led the darted rhino as close as possible to us.

 

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Photo 1; Two rhinos, one chopper, and a lot of leaves flying around.

 

The anesthetic used was of course M99, a drug 1000 to 3000 times more potent than morphine. It is a very dangerous drug that is fatal to humans. 0.1mg on a small wound and you'd be as dead as disco. That's why M99 is always sold together with an antidote for people. The antidote to big animals, however, is M5050. If you want to know all about M99, see here; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etorphine

 

After the rhino is darted, we needed to wait for 5 to 8 minutes until it fell asleep. The helicopter made sure that it didn't disappear into the bushes. But at the same time, the veterinarian also had to jump out, because the vet needed to be with the animal as soon as the drug kicked in. How the pilot always managed a place to land quickly, and get back up again ...it's still a mystery to me.

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02c.jpg

 

Photo 2; When the rhino is on it's knees every second counts. The guides were often required to push the animal on it's side, and to get the legs from underneath the belly and in the right position (not stretched, but rather with the knees slightly bent).


On the left in the above image; Craig Spencer, game warden of the Balule reserve and creator of the Black Mamba anti-poaching group. A group consisting entirely of women, all from our surrounding villages. For all info about the Black Mambas, see here; https://www.facebook.com/blackmambasapu/


On the picture at the back; Quentin Swanevelder, nature guide with more than 15 years of experience. He often does the walking trails in Kruger National Park. In this image he calls the guests/sponsors, as it is now safe for them to come closer.


A special cloth is placed over the eyes of the rhino, with a small hole on the top, and a velcro strip at the bottom. The hole goes over the small horn, and the cloth then covers the rhino's eyes. Some cotton wool goes in both ears. The less senses the rhino can use, the less stressful the whole experience is for him/her.

 

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03c.jpg

 

Photo 3; After the legs are positioned correctly, oxygen is given. The tube goes directly into the nose, and one team member keeps it there permanently, until it's time to wake up the rhino.

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04c.jpg

 

Photo 4; Guests & sponsors enjoy the "show" from a short a distance. Noise is kept to an absolute minimum, even though there's cottonwool in the rhino's ears. As I mentioned above; I blurred all faces just to make sure I post no images of anyone who would rather remain anonymous. One face is not blurred. That's Ian Mitchell, maybe you recognise him.

 

Occasionally, the veterinarian asks one person from the group to assist with a specific task. This way everyone is closely involved with the entire operation.

 

 

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Photo 5; The vet drills a hole in both horns. It smells like burnt hair, but unlike what most guides say, a rhino horn is not "compressed hair". Hair has no cell structure, but horn does. Of course, horn also contains keratin, hence the smell of burned hair, and hence probably why many guides are confused.

 

While the holes are being drilled, the veterinarian explained a few things. For example why the poisoning or coloring of horn is ineffective.

 

A chip is put in the holes. It's actually just the same chip as used for cats and dog. The hole is sealed with glue. Once the glue is dry the poacher can no longer get to the chip. He can only destroy the chip if he grinds the horn. But buyers want to see the full horn (they want to know it's the real thing. So this means that; as long as the horn is in one piece, we now can find out where it came from. This helps a lot in prosecuting poachers.

 

A sponsor captures the shavings in a little bottle. This goes to an international database where all DNA of all rhinoceros is stored.

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Photo 6; quick check to see if the chips work correctly. There's one in every horn, but one underneath the skin as well.

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07c.jpg

 

Photo 7; A unique pattern is drawn in the ear of the rhino (or sometimes in both ears, if needed), so that the animal is now easily recognisable from a safe distance. On this picture you see that the in the pattern has already been drawn in the ear, with a felt tip pen.

 

In the vet's hands; The clamps that will prevent the ear wounds to bleed. The bleeding is stopped with a special substance that is anti-inflammatory as well.

 

The person who holds the horn is Wayne Te Brake, also a trails guide with lots of experience.

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08c.jpg

 

Photo 8; Yours truly with Pilot Phillip Cole. We were both required to push the rhino on it's side and keep it like that. It tried rolling back. The rhino's weight might have prevented too much blood flow in his legs.

 

In the back you can see the vet cutting out the pattern in the ear.

 

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09c.jpg

 

Photo 9; Everybody returns the vehicles, which are parked at a safe distance. All equipment is packed and on the vehicles. The helicopter's engine is running. Then the earplugs are taken out of the rhino's ears.


The vet remains as the last person. He administers the antidote, which will reverse the effects of the M99 in less than two minutes. After he has given the shot he takes away the cloth that is over the rhino's face. The cloth is already loosened as you can see, because the vet must run to the chopper as fast as he can, so that there's enough time to fly away.


The rhino is back on his feet in no time, and in no less than two minutes he feels nothing of the M99, even though it's still in his system. A little confused, he slips away quietly, in the opposite direction from where the chopper is making a lot of noise. If the rhino was separated from a group, the helicopter will guide him back to them, but in the most gentle way (from a very long distance, without giving the animal unnecessary stress).

 

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That's all, folks.

 

The impact on the sponsors/guests was enormous. Even more so because the reserve lost four rhinos to poaching while the group was there! Two cows that were poached were pregnant, so we actually lost six. One of the rhinos that got shot did not die straight away. It fled from where it was shot, and finally died less than 500m from our camp. It was full moon, so then there's a peak in poaching.

 

On the last day, we walked them up to one of the carcasses. It made a serious impact on them, but it is important that they saw what they were helping to combat. One of the sponsors already wrote a deeply moving post on Facebook. It's not a public post, but you can read it here (I edited out all names he mentioned, unless it's names of the crew members);

 

http://www.theafricabug.com/temp/BD/reeks1/sponsor_reaction.rtf

 

If you have questions - about this event, about the current poaching crisis, about the techniques we use to stop poaching etc etc - please post them and I'll try to answer.

 

More photos on the Facebook page of Elephants Alive; https://www.facebook.com/ElephantsAlive.SouthAfrica/posts/1673022636088279

 

 

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@Jochen Good job and thanks for interesting report :)

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Thanks @Jochen, hope this kind of events can help in the funding of rhino monitoring and "horn chipping". Very interesting experience indeed.

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@Jochen thank you for sharing. 

 

how long does tagging a rhino/elephant take from the moment the dart is shot and the animal is awakened? 

is tagging done only in balule and klaserie or has tagging been done in the other reserves along Kruger park already? 

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6 hours ago, Kitsafari said:

How long does tagging a rhino/elephant take from the moment the dart is shot and the animal is awakened? 

is tagging done only in balule and klaserie or has tagging been done in the other reserves along Kruger park already? 

 

I didn't look at my watch but on average I think it lasted only 15 minutes or so, for rhino as well as elephant.

 

Not sure about all private reserves, but since most rhinos that I encounter in Sabi Sands and Timbavati have ear notches, I assume it's done there as well. 

 

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@Jochen, @Kitsafari I went to rhino tagging when I stayed in the Timbavati. It was exactly the same as above and the rhino was 'down' for around 20 minutes. I wrote about it in my trip report of Kambaku River Sands. It was an impressive thing to witness.

 

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@Jochen incredible that so much can be done within those 15-20 mins. 

 

@pomkiwi now that you mentioned it, i do remember reading it in your TR. such a privilege to witness and participate in it. 

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