4.30am – Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga, South Africa
Long awaited spring rains finally arrived on Friday in the South African National Parks’ (SANParks) Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga.
In Skukuza rest camp; there is a crisp freshness in the air, as the Kruger slowly awakened with the dawn. The storm clouds have been shredded by gale force winds during the night, leaving thin grey streaks of cloud in the sky. The rain is gone for now, but threatens still. Now all that remains is for rangers to track today’s first rhino for translocation.
The process is in full swing now, with a limit of 500 set by Parliament in August. Rangers have until the end of October to move as many rhino as possible until stress inducing heat shuts down SANParks’ rhino management implementation strategy until autumn.
At Wildlife Veterinary Services, Operations manager Marius Kruger said Friday’s target was four white rhino.
“Because of the rain, we will have to work from the tar roads and walk in. So be aware of other animals, other rhino, other dangerous animals, so stay in a group,” Kruger said.
As the sun cracked the sky, a sense of urgency was evident in the capture team. The entire operation is heat dependent and time was a wasting.
SANParks has captured 16 rhino so far, black and white, with another 15 corralled in boma’s.
The blatting of the chopper in its distinctive yellow and green SANParks livery as it banks hard overhead destroys the early morning peace.
Battling gusting winds, chopper pilot Grant Knight herds a rhino up a hill towards the road. Experience has taught the crew rain makes the bush treacherous for vehicles so the rhino needs to be sedated as close as possible to the main road.
The game capture vehicles, massive 4×4 trucks, should cope, but there is no point in taking chances.
Rhino down. It’s done its characteristic high stepping dance but it’s powerless to resist the powerful opiate coursing through its veins, even as it tries to defend its calf, already knocked out by a smaller dose of the same drug.
A mad dash through the bush follows; there are only minutes to left to collect vital information. Horn length, blood and hair and skin samples for Rhodis, the rhino DNA database, and the actual size of the rhino cow are gathered.
Microchip the horn and the animal, check body condition, the cow is pregnant, about half way through its gestation period of 16 months.
The cow is more awake than for usual DNA tagging, it has to be walked to its container about 100m away.
With cloth tightly bound over its eyes to keep it calm, a train of men pull on a rope tied around its head and walk it slowly towards the container. As soon as it’s safe, the calf is brought to its feet. A year old, it is also a female, and heavier than it looks.
As is the way with many children, it’s a lot more stubborn than its parent, and has to be pushed all the way to the container.
It walks like a drunken man, strapping wide and short, and dodging its feet is a full time job.
Trying not to trip in the knee length grass either is also a full time job.
Done. Mother and calf are safely ensconced in their very temporary homes. They will be transported to a boma to be acclimatized to small spaces for when it is time to move them longer distances.
“Weather plays an enormous part in rhino capture. The animals also need to be close enough to the road,” said SANParks chief veterinarian Dr Markus Hofmeyr.
He says it is a first for SANParks to move rhino from their established areas into others, in this case, protected zones.
“This is an experimental exercise. We put transmitters on the ankle so we can monitor how they interact with others and to see if they leave the area,” Hofmeyr said.
As the first truck drives off with the rhino, the helicopter takes off; it’s time to find the next two.
Soggy, ankle-breaking terrain, vicious gusting winds which threatened to knock the helicopter out of the sky and soaring temperatures notwithstanding, the final rhino cow has finally been crated.
Four female white rhino, one of which was pregnant, have been taken to safer climes within the park.
Remember, says Hofmeyr, it is not only about protection. “This is also about increasing the number of rhinos by reducing competition for nutrition and social space so breeding levels can pick up,” Hofmeyr said.
He cautioned against thinking 500 rhino was a must-reach target, saying it was a limit, and in all probability it may not be reached because of the conditions the team faced.