* This article originally appeared here in the Sunday Times
At 6am pilot Delport Botma collected me from the lodge and we began the 40-minute patrol of the reserve fences. The adrenaline was pumping from both the thrill of the rare participation in the patrol and the fact that the helicopter had no side doors – turning sharply mid-air I quickly realised this was also an exercise of trust in both pilot and seatbelt.
Below animals scattered over the Zululand hills, which gave way to fertile valleys and then finally, the mighty White Umfolozi River. In the heart of KwaZulu-Natal I was participating in a fence patrol at Babanango Game Reserve. Anti-poaching efforts are a costly but necessary endeavour and these twice-daily chopper flights form a vital part of that. Luckily for me, guests at Babanango are able to participate in these security flights as an add-on experience.
Seeing the game below is a matter of conservation pride – through the establishing of the reserve Babanango has embarked on one of the biggest rewilding projects in the country. This year alone, has seen over 1500 head of game returning to an area of wilderness where decades ago they would have roamed freely.
There was however, a little more riding on today’s flight. We needed confirmation that all was in order, for the following day would be a significant one for not only Babanango, but for country-wide conservation efforts as the first ever establishing of a new rhino population of this scale using orphaned black rhino would be happening here.
The four rhinos were rescued from different poaching incidents, having been orphaned from ages two months to two years. For the past years they’ve been cared for by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife staff, and thanks to the work of WWF’s BRREP, the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, they were about to find a new home.
BRREP is a unique conservation partnership between WWF and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and I had the privilege of spending some time with Dr. Jacques Flamand, who heads up the project. “BRREP was started in 2003 to address a concern that our black rhino growth rate was decline. 40% of rhino in KZN are on private land, whereas there was none when we started – and thank goodness they are. Private land is smaller and therefore easier to protect. Black Rhino were critically endangered when the project started, but there wasn’t a massive poaching wave then. Since 2006 we’ve lost thousands of rhinos in South Africa.”
With the confirmation that it was time to make the ninety-minute journey to Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve, where the rhino were waiting. The Kwa-Zulu Natal reserve, the oldest proclaimed nature reserve in Africa, is coincidentally the birthplace of rhino conservation. Thanks to the pivotal work of conservationist Dr. Ian Player decades ago, the country’s rhino population was not only stabilised but grew. In the early 1900’s the population was devastated as a result of unregulated hunting, but today the challenge has shifted to poaching.
Walking along the elevated gangway of the undisclosed game capture site, I was gazing below at the four orphaned rhinos; they were completely oblivious of the events that were about to unfold, which would forever change the trajectory of their lives. At 06h00 there was enough light to start the day’s activities.
First the animals were semi-tranquilised with a dart gun. Fascinatingly, in their sedated state the rhino follow a white flag, so with these flags they were led into their crate. Once in safely, the crates were loaded onto a truck and the transportation began. We raced ahead of the rhino to Babanango to wait at the chosen destination.
While the day would be filled with countless emotions, perhaps no moment was as poignant, as when the valiant members of the anti-poaching unit arrived, clad in their distinctive camo gear. The crates carrying the rhino had several small breathing holes in them, and one by one, each of the men walked up and had a chance to look through. For the first time, they were able to stare into the eyes of the creatures for whom on a daily basis, they’d bravely put their lives on the line to protect. Although still semi-sedated, the rhino were aware of their presence. It was a touching moment, a sacred exchange not easily captured in word or image.
When the teams were ready, the rhinos were injected again, but this time fully-sedated. The crates were opened just before they passed out, so they tumbled out where with ropes they were caught and helped to lie down. Next, they were fitted with transmitters onto the stub where their horns were shaved down, along with a collar on their legs.
Finally, after a long and emotional day, all bystanders were moved away to a safe observation distance, leaving behind only the four vets. They simultaneously administered the antidote for the anaesthetic and then quickly jumped into the waiting bakkie, driving away to a safe distance.
As the rhino awoke they began to explore their surroundings. One of the males soon asserted his dominance on one of the others – a positive sign I was told. I could almost imagine the rich timbre of Sir David Attenborough’s voice, almost quavering, in response to this wildlife triumph.
Later that night, sitting around the fire and being surrounded by the voices of conservation giants, was a sobering experience. Their faces and stories carried the lament and weightiness of the challenges faced by conservation efforts. It’s a disheartening situation, to say the least. However, the continuous efforts by wildlife authorities and organisations have ensured, and hopefully will continue to, that our rhino don’t just survive, but thrive.
I asked Dr Flamand how, in the light of such challenges, he was able to keep up the mantle of hope. There was a moment’s pause, before he answered: “South Africa is the last stronghold of rhino. We have to fight on otherwise they will completely disappear from the planet and we just cannot let that happen. We’ve seen that with so many species. I don’t know what the future is for rhino, but we’re trying to make a difference in our era and let’s hope that the next generation can carry the mantle and succeed.”
SIDEBAR: How you can help
- Book at safari at Babanango and know that part of your rates will go towards their continued conservation efforts. Take it one step further as I did and pay for a spot on one of the anti-poaching helicopter flips. babanango.co.za
- For an informative and quite compelling look at the concept of rewilding, Grant Fowlds and Graham Spencer’s Rewilding Africa is an excellent read. Available online R220 at Loot.co.za.
- WWF offers a programme for adopting animals, including rhino. From R300 per month you’ll support an animal and receive a certificate and regular updates. wwf.org.za
- If you’d like to get more hands on, Wildlife ACT offers the opportunity to participate in paid volunteer projects. wildlifeact.com