March 24, 2015

Helping in the fight against Rhino Poaching

Students from Cornwall College had the opportunity to take part in a Rhino Notching project. Even though this is only a small part in the fight against Rhino Poaching; it feels good to unite against the fight to prevent extinction of this precious specie.

With Peter Powell from WildCon having delivered a very sobering briefing on Rhino Poaching to the Cornwall College students the previous evening, the Group had much to ponder as staff members Kat, Jane and Jason roused everyone from their slumbers at a somewhat early hour of the morning!

An air of excitement and anticipation abounded as the Group boarded the vehicles for the short drive to the Klaserie Gate to meet the Kings Camp Guides who would drive us to the initial assembly point deep into the Klaserie Game Reserve.

On arrival, Warden Colin Rowles and Wildlife Vet Peter Rogers briefed the Group on the need for Rhino Notching and its important role in the fight against Rhino Poaching. They outlined the characteristics of the drugs to be used, the equipment needed while also allocating various roles to some Students during the notching process, such as monitoring of breathing, statistics compilation and assisting with the safe control of the drugged animal during the whole process.

With hot coffee, rusks and muffins being enjoyed, the adrenaline levels spiked suddenly as the distinctive thump of the approaching helicopter’s rotor blades became progressively louder culminating in the pilot performing a fast overhead pull-up and neat left side-slip to land amidst a cloud of dust close to the gathered Group.

The Helicopter comes into land at the Assembly Point
Without further ado Warden Colin Rowles and a delighted Cornwall College Student Libby Harman boarded the idling chopper to scout around the immediate area for a suitable Rhino to notch. The search proved to be slightly longer than anticipated with numerous Rhino around but many being either too young or had been notched already! Eventually a young Bull still running with his mother was identified with the helicopter returning immediately to gear up. Depositing Libby and the Warden, but picking up Peter Rogers and an apprehensive but excited Student Rebekah Finn, the chopper lifted off to relocate the targeted Rhino Bull.

Immediately the remnants of coffees and rusks were quickly consumed, hot boxes packed, vehicles boarded and soon we were racing off in hot pursuit of the helicopter. Following the helicopter on rough African dirt roads at speed was exhilarating as branches and grass slapped against the speeding chase vehicles’ sides, slowing only to give some space to a large herd of Buffalo who, staring wide-eyed, barely had time to react as the convoy crashed through their midst.

Through the acacia strewn bush we suddenly saw the helicopter pull up into a hover, no doubt the shot was on……!!
Peter Rodgers' view as the dart would be fired
Seemingly to confirm this, the Warden’s lead vehicle veered off-road to the right racing to the scene to close the distance as soon as possible. With the helicopter now hovering attentively and protectively ahead, the large grey back and rump of the Rhino Bull soon came in view, he was already down as the drugs took their effect. With no time to waste, the chopper landed and the chase vehicles skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust, their occupants spilling out with some urgency and in little time the team had the blanket over the Bull’s eyes, socks placed loosely in its ears to minimise sudden sounds and a wide-eyed Student, Charly Dawber, quickly and expertly calling out breathing rates. A combined heave from all the students shifted the Bull into a comfortable, stable position and, under the watchful eye of a now sweating Vet, the process commenced!
Eyes covered, sound minimize, breathing being monitored! The Warden and Charly hard at work
Identification micro-chips were deftly drilled and sealed into both horns, antibiotics injected, DNA samples extracted, measurements taken and recorded, while the crisp snaps of the notches being cut in the Bull’s ears in a specific unique identifying pattern were clearly audible over and above the organized chaos of the team’s activities. With no signs of distress being displayed by the Bull, the newly notched cuts in its ears were then quickly and efficiently clamped to stem any bleeding.

With the available time window to complete the whole process rapidly diminishing and everybody engrossed with the Bull, few took notice of the helicopter pilot advancing the throttle and pulling collective to turn elegantly up and away from the busy area, his job now complete.

His short, but vital participation over, time to go!

A final check on breathing rates, last photos taken, clamps removed and it was time to wake the Bull up!! Clearing everybody back onto the vehicles, Peter Rogers administered the antidote, hovering expectantly around the animal keeping the hood on until the very last moment.

Not the best place to be with a Rhino Bull on the verge of re-gaining consciousness! The blanket about to be removed by Peter Rogers
Timing his final approach perfectly, Peter Rogers deftly lifted the blanket as the Rhino groggily rose to his feet, spinning around in alarm as his head undoubtedly began to clear.
The Bull unsteadily gets to his feet! A critical moment to see how he reacts
He sprang alarmingly close to a vehicle but then veered away, taking in his surroundings through watering eyes.
Still unsteady, but wide-eyed and now fully alert. The Bull looks around warily!
With an audible call to his nearby mother and a last 360 degree sweep around to check his bearings, the young Bull bade us farewell trotting off into the surrounding bush seemingly none worse for wear, but minus a few centimetres of ear and probably a small dent to some pride!
Still Bleary-eyed. The notches are clearly visible

But that is the way to go Mom! Let's go!
As the Bull disappeared, an amazed but satisfied silence lingered over the Students, Guides and Vet staff alike, feeling so privileged to have been part of the process and being so close to this magnificent wild but regal creature!! 
The Cornwall College Group, thank you for joining us. We look forward to hosting you all again very soon!

Blog written by Rhodes Bezuidenhout

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