Sports A Field

A Precious Resource

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Funding and support from safari hunters is crucial to the conservation of both black and white rhinos.

“The dart is in.” The calm voice coming through my headset was that of the pilot of the Robinson 44 helicopter, Jacobus “Koos” Bench. Koos uses his helicopter much like a West Texas cowboy uses his quarter horse for cutting out a cow from a herd, but in this case the cutting involves gently guiding a female black rhino away from the dense brush and into an open glade where sampling, marking, and medical treatment (if necessary) can occur.

The animal the dart protruded from was a female desert black rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis), once prevalent here in the Kalahari Desert. Pre-flight, I watched as wildlife veterinarian Charlotte Moueix loaded the dart destined for the chamber of her New Dart 389 rifle with a mixture of etorphine and azaperone using a small needle and syringe. The dart itself had a small explosive charge which would activate when the dart plunged through the two-inch-thick skin on the rhino’s rump. Charlotte explained that etorphine is 8,000 times the strength of morphine and can produce a depressed respiration in highly sensitive animals like rhinos. That is why she mixed in azaperone, a short-acting tranquilizer that causes a slight rise in respiration, counteracting some of the effect of etorphine. 

The owners of Kalahari Oryx and their hunter-clients are funding work protecting a precious resource, with the expensive services of wildlife vets like Charlotte necessary to safeguard the health of irreplaceable animals. This is particularly the case for the black rhinos found and darted this crisp winter morning in the Kalahari Desert.

Female black rhinos are not usually darted and sampled on this property. Johan Maritz, manager of Kalahari Oryx, explained, “It is impossible to purchase black rhino females, so we must let their numbers increase through births. If the veterinarian makes a mistake, or the female darted is somehow unusually sensitive to the drugs, and she dies, it will be a catastrophe for our conservation program. It would set us back by at least a decade.” My visit, and the opportunity to tell a conservation story about hunters funding rhino conservation, was the catalyst for the owners and staff of Kalahari Oryx carrying out this risky event. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

When the black rhino cow tipped over and began blissfully snoozing, I contemplated the amount of monetary investment she represented. Jacques Hartzenberg became a co-owner of Kalahari Oryx some twenty years ago, and the first black rhinos, three females and one male, arrived on the property in 2008. Since then, only males have been available for purchase from other properties and national park herds. Given that the most recent bull purchased cost more than $25,000 US, the owners’ investment is astronomical.

Wildlife veterinarian Charlotte Moueix points to the small explosive charge that injects the drug cocktail when the dart strikes the rhino.

“Will you make the money back?” I asked. Jacque answered, “No. If our goal is a legacy of black rhino conservation, we must be willing to shoulder some of the enormous cost. But this is also a business. For us to survive, we must have the cash flow from the black and white rhino hunting permits allowed by law. Unfortunately, though the white rhino tags have been forthcoming, due to political issues no black rhino tags have been issued since 2019. This, of course, is catastrophic for black rhino conservation. Every time we sell a black rhino permit, we purchase four more sub-adult males–not for hunting, but for increasing the meta-population on our property and countrywide. Every permit denied means four fewer males protected from poaching.”

Charlotte and her team continued their work, which included ear clipping (cutting a notch in the ear to make the rhino easy to identify from a distance), running an electronic detector over the neck and horn of the female to check for microchips, insertion of the farm’s own microchip, measuring the base circumference and length of both horns, removing hair and follicles from the tail for DNA typing, taking blood samples, and snapping photographs.

Charlotte also administered 40 ccs of antibiotic through the two inches of skin covering the animal’s rump. This was in response to an ugly discharge from the female’s vulva. I asked about the likely outcome. “She should be fine,” Charlotte said. “This antibiotic is a general spectrum drug, and this looks like a simple case of pyometra (uterine infection).”

The farm spends $30,000 to $40,000 US per month just on anti-poaching efforts, using both human and technological safeguards. If poachers make it to the Kalahari Oryx boundary, they will face scores of US Navy SEAL-trained, armed response members patrolling the property and fence lines 24/7, both on foot and in four-wheel-drive vehicles. And if poachers are unlucky enough to hear the whop-whop of the rotors of an approaching helicopter, Koos is enroute.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the vast amount of energy, sweat, and money expended on security focusses primarily on the protection of white rather than black rhinos, since there are more white rhinos on the property, thus making them the target for the poaching syndicates. The non-issuance of the black rhino hunting permits could, in the long-term, mean the loss of both types of rhinos due to lack of funds to cover the security costs. This is the almost-certain outcome from the wrong-headed narrative generated by so-called animal-rights activists.

The above inference is not hunter vitriol. National parks in South Africa cannot protect their rhinos. For example, Kruger National Park, in spite of its best efforts, lost 70 percent of their rhinos to poaching in a single decade. During that same decade, Kalahari Oryx did not lose a single rhino to poaching, and no poachers ever breached the boundary fence.

Three more female black rhinos went to sleep that cloudless morning and woke up with ear clippings and microchips inserted in their necks. Black rhinos are notoriously aggressive, and each of the four females darted that morning woke up after the administration of the antidote and immediately charged the hovering helicopter. 

Our work alongside Charlotte and the Kalahari team continued after a break for lunch. The afternoon’s task involved partially sedating three white rhino bulls, one mature and two sub-adults, for transport from the “hospital” pasture to the main property; the old bull was moved because he had previously killed two subadult bulls. Likewise, the two subadult bulls had healed from wounds incurred in fights with other bulls.

I rode along in the helicopter for the darting of the mature male, and again heard Koos’ calm “The dart is in.” He used the Robinson 44 to gently guide the animal into the path of the ground convoy, which incuded what looked like an oversized, reinforced cattle trailer. As the bull began showing signs of stupor, Koos landed and Charlotte and I jumped out, with the vet quickly pulling out the dart, throwing on an eye-covering and beginning the marking and sampling work.

Rhino study and protection relies heavily on the skills of pilots like Jacobus “Koos” Bench, who uses his Robinson 44 helicopter to push rhinos into open areas where they can be darted.

This time, when the work was done, a new stage began. What I can only refer to as a rodeo ensued. With people (including yours truly positioned with one hand gripping an ear and one gripping the front horn) lining each side of the massive, stumbling animal, we danced along guiding the 2½-ton bull toward the ramp leading into the trailer. Some might tell you it’s straightforward keeping a rhino high on drugs from trampling your feet and legs. I disagree. Fortunately, the rest of the crew knew what they were doing.

The day ended late, just as another magnificent African sunset painted the horizon. We watched as the last of the three bulls came back to his senses and trotted away. I was thankful for the opportunity to be in the presence of these great works of biological art, and for those willing to expend so much of their time, energy, and money for the effective conservation of these magnificent animals. It is not hyperbole to say that without the efforts of and funding from hunters, both black and white rhinos may disappear from the natural world.


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