Much of the frenetic human activity around the sedated rhino is to find out more about the stress it suffers. ‘We take blood samples from their ears to check on stress hormone levels and for a pregnancy test. We monitor their blood pressure and general condition and we take a sample of faeces,’ Dr Jacques Flamand, the Project Leader for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and WWF told me later. Blood samples are taken from her ear, bloody skin lesions – caused by a parasite (they can somehow manage to penetrate even this armoured skin) – are treated with disinfectant, a vet monitors her blood pressure and general condition while someone with an arm-length plastic glove has the unenviable task of reaching high inside her rear end to extract a sample of poo to test.
This being a large animal, the poo sample is rather large too. A large handful to be accurate. But rhino poo isn’t as bad as it sounds. Black Rhinos are vegetarian, devouring quantities of scrub, twigs and leaves. As a result, it’s grassy green and not very smelly. I know because I smelt a handful. ‘We measure stress hormones in the dung and these are related to levels in the blood. We also collect dung from sites where the animals are released later and test that for hormones too. By knowing more about their stress levels, the team can improve their understanding of what’s going on and maybe improve techniques for future captures and reintroductions,’ adds Flamand.
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Then a small power saw starts whining; a surprising sound out here in the savannah but one that’s become essential. The rhino is having its horn sawn off; equivalent to our having an extra-large toenail cut … and it’s made out of the same material, keratin. Then a large hole is drilled into the horn’s stump and a small tracker device fitted inside it with some powerful glue; that way the rhino’s movement can be tracked when it’s released in her new home.
Removing the horn is a wise precaution; poachers are killing rhino in every African country where they still occur, and although most victims that are killed are the more abundant White Rhino, it’s totally indiscriminate and several Blacks have been killed too. While mumbo-jumbo medicinal uses for the horn in Southeast Asia have traditionally driven this horrendous trade, much of it today is used to satisfy the hedonistic nouveau riche in Vietnam and China with rhino horn bangles, necklaces and apres party pick-me-ups. It’s a devastating trade. Originally, there were thought to be hundreds of thousands of Black Rhino continent-wide. In 2014, South Africa had 2,044; that’s 40% of the African population which currently stands at 5,055. Particularly in South Africa where safeguards are better, the numbers are increasing slowly.
Later that afternoon we chased after another rhino darted in a different part of the reserve. This was a male. The same thorough routine was carried out quietly and efficiently. But there was a rather different problem this time. He had collapsed on a slope with a number of trees between him and the nearest fairly flat ground the lorry could reverse safely on to. So it was chainsaw time again, though for trees not rhino horn this time. While the team was working on the rhino, two or three Zulu helpers were cutting down trees – and not small ones – to clear a route for the lorry. The heavy duty crate was lowered to the ground off the lorry and, with the hawser-like ropes attached to the sedated rhino, one of these linked through the crate to pull him in, and several Zulu workers on the end of each rope, he was injected with the antidote.
It took maybe 20 seconds to work. Then this tonne of animal staggered to his feet unaware that he was tethered. Floundering and presumably unaware of what was happening, he was tugged to the crate, given a couple of mild electric shocks with cattle prods on his rear end … and in he went. The big iron doors were quickly closed and bolted, the crate was lifted on to the lorry and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Another Black Rhino was on his way to a new home, helping to secure a future for a magnificent animal.
The Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, a fairly traditional savannah-dominated habitat, a much smaller cousin of the famous Kruger, proved a good place to visit in other ways too, not the least of which is that it’s easy to combine it with visiting the nearby coastal Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park. Now renamed the iSimangaliso (appropriately, it means ‘miracle’ in Zulu) Wetland Park, with nearly 3,000 km2 of coast, lake, marshlands and woodland it adds a huge diversity of wildlife to whatever you can see out in the dry savannah. There are elephant, leopard, Black Rhino, White Rhino, African Buffalo, hippo and Nile Crocodiles and in the ocean, whales, dolphins, and marine turtles including breeding Leatherbacks and Loggerheads.
The birds around here are stunning. The safari lodge we stayed in was surrounded by woodland and scrub on the edge of these wetlands; we spotted at least nine different species of sunbirds in the week we were there. Mostly very small, they probe into flowers with down-curved beaks to extract nectar. While several are dark, most have bright bands of colour; the male Orange-breasted Sunbird, apart from the orange, has a green head and nape, yellow belly and long tail feathers. The female isn’t dull either; she has an olive-brown back with yellow underparts. Watching them probe flowering shrubs while we ate breakfast on a nearby terrace is one of my favourite South African memories.
So, too, was walking on paths in the local woodland where Grey-headed and Brown-hooded Kingfishers hunted large insects. Two of the dryland kingfishers in the world, they are just as attractive and fast-flying as their sometimes better-known water-inhabiting cousins. There were also mousebirds; strange, long-tailed, scruffy looking individuals that creep about in dense scrub and low trees but, when they fly, almost always do so in follow-my-leader fashion from one bit of thicket to the next.
One of the most striking sights was to watch an assembly of herons and storks standing close together as if they were a school party or hiking group on a walking tour and had stopped en masse to listen to their guide. At first I didn’t spot them. A group of us were walking across some damp grassland – much of it usually flooded in summer, but not when I was there – on the edge of the St Lucia wetlands. We were led by one of the managers at the safari camp and he was taking us to see some rather uncommon birds he had seen previously. Here we found three different species of longclaw, including the Cape Longclaw, found nowhere else but the very south of Africa. The male of this species, while brown on the back, has canary yellow underparts and a bright orange throat lined with black. It was a striking sight. Longclaws are like large pipits – to whom they are closely related – but much more colourful, larger and, yes, with surprisingly long claws.