08 October 2012 by Julienne du Toit

Rhinos spread their wings

When history repeats itself, it’s worth looking back and using a few of the lessons learnt then. At least this time we know the dosage of drugs needed to translocate imperilled rhinos.

Southern white rhinos were saved from certain extinction in the 1960s. Photo Chris Marais

Back in the late 1950s, southern white rhino numbers were plummeting down to extinction. There were fewer than 500 left, the vast majority in iMfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal.

All eggs, as it were, were in one basket – a perilous situation. Apart from poaching, which was decimating numbers at a frightening rate, a disease like anthrax (which was threatening at the time) could have wiped them all out.

Dr Ian Player, conservation legend and brother of golfer Gary Player, headed up Operation Rhino in the 1960s, specifically to move rhinos into safe areas.

But first they had to figure out how to move the rhinos. Operation Rhino might just as well have been called Mission Impossible.

Mud-covered rhino in dense bush. Photo Chris Marais

No one had any idea how to tranquillise and transport such an enormous animal.

Fortunately there was a wildlife vet, Dr Toni Harthoorn, who had some experience with wildlife translocations up in Kenya. He proved critical to the mission’s success.

There were appalling mistakes, literally scarring to all concerned, thanks to underdosing or overdosing. Some rhinos died. Dr Player is blind in one eye thanks to a burst tranquilliser dart that sprayed into his face.

But by 1966 the team had moved 282 white rhinos to parks around southern Africa. Another 63 had gone to zoos around the world.

White rhino numbers increased, and by the 1990s the southern white rhino was allowed to be sold to private landowners. It became a flagship conservation success story.

Fast forward to 2012. Poaching is killing many hundreds a year, and again the rhinos are too concentrated in South Africa, although this time, at least, they are in parks around the country.

Translocations are fundamental to secure the ongoing survival of rhino for future generations.

Bad management, poaching and overhunting has decimated rhino numbers in other parts of Africa, and once again rhinos have to be spread around to minimise the risk.

Recently Les Carlisle, conservation manager for andBeyond, announced that 6 white rhinos from Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal would be moved to Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

'South Africa has already lost over 300 rhino to illegal poaching this year alone, and Botswana currently has an excellent security system to protect the species. Translocations are fundamental to secure the ongoing survival of rhino for future generations,' he said on 22 September, World Rhino Day.

Rangers from Botswana will be sent to Phinda for intensive training to become familiar with white rhino behaviour so that they can track and monitor the beasts. Capture and release bomas are going to be constructed, and the project is being facilitated by Rhino Force and sponsored by Motorite Insurance Administrators.

Once again, rhinos are having to spread their wings...

White rhino have distinctive wide mouths - probably the source of their name. Photo Chris Marais

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