Dehorning – An Owner’s Story

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As some of you know, our area has been plagued with numerous poaching undertakings these past few months.  In some cases these poachers have been successful and in others we have succeeded in interrupting their plans.  With every event we have been able to gather much needed information by working together with the community and other parties that share the same passion for conservation. This great teamwork has even led to some poachers being apprehended, even before they could reach their targets.

Before I continue I would like to thank my team for their insane hard work and commitment during this period.  I would like to thank the members of the community for their time and efforts.  Finally, I would like to thank our volunteer students who support us in all the work we do. All of you that give your time and support, you are all Legends!

Due to the increase of threats in the area we have finally decided to go forth with the plan of dehorning our small rhino population. This was definitely not an easy decision to make (especially because we have come to know these animals on such a personal level and have seen how they use their horns throughout their daily routine and interactions), but it is a decision that we fully support and we feel it will definitely aid in the protection of our rhino.

I feel it is IMPORTANT to mention that just because we have dehorned these rhino, it definitely does not mean we now consider them safe.  The dehorning is merely an added deterrent to combine with our current protocol of monitoring and anti-poaching.

It has been a very emotional weekend… to be honest I have not yet had time to process everything that has happened… but one thing that I can say is that it has been a very successful one!  Our team, together with that of the Wildlife veterinarian, made sure the process went by swiftly, professionally and effectively.  From locating the animals to the darting and dehorning, it all went by exceptionally smoothly with no injuries to the animals and minimal stress.  All of the dehorning procedures were completed during the early hours, before the heat of the day could kick in. This was the first relief of the day:  All rhinos were done with no serious hiccups.

After the dehorning, we went back to camp where the representative from Nature Conservation continued to measure, weigh and microchip all the horns.  All the information was logged accordingly and the horns were taken from the reserve to an undisclosed location for secure storage.

During all of this, even though the dehorning was over and it all went well, we were still not at ease.  Our minds were focused on these types of questions: “Are the rhino ok?”, “Will the calf and mom find each other?”, “How would all of this affect them?” and “Have we lost their trust?”

This brings us to the late afternoon and our first opportunity to go out again and locate the rhino after they had some time to recover.  We went back out not only to monitor their condition, but also to confirm their location and make sure they are not in any high risk areas.

Within half an hour of leaving camp we found Mbilu, our rhino calf (2 years old) and the only rhino without a radio collar.  This was an insane relief, but not without concern.  We immediately realised she was not with her mother!  We took out the radio telemetry gear and started to scan for any rhino in the area, and as luck would have it, Mbilu’s mom was not too far off!  It might even be possible for us to reunite the two before sunset… that is if they still trust us?  I took off on foot to track the rhino cow, while Jason and the team stayed behind to keep a close eye on little Mbilu.

After following tracks and signal I finally found her, Mbilu’s mom was leaning against a Matoppie tree, completely exhausted and half asleep.  Of course the drugs from the morning would still have a residual effect and she would be a bit drowsy from this, but her tracks also showed that she has spent a lot of energy trying to find Mbilu. Now the question in my mind was: how to get Momma tank to baby tank… and does our tank still trust me?  Normally when you are in a situation like this, you want the tank on your side.

I decided to take the risk and wake her. I got her attention by calling her the same way that she has been habituated to know my voice and my presence.  She woke and, although she was drowsy, she seemed relieved to see and hear something familiar.  After spending some time with her, she then started following me very, very slowly, but each baby step was a step closer to her baby!  Relief is not really a strong enough word to describe what I felt at this moment.

As we were slowly creeping towards Mbilu’s location I realised that this was going to take way too long.  I was wondering if it might not be a better idea to go and attempt to somehow lure Mbilu towards her mom, but calling and leading Mbilu individually is something that we have never done, especially not after something as stressful as this morning.  Before I could continue my thoughts though, I saw something coming towards us in the distance. It was Jason, and, who was that behind him? MBILU!! She was actually following him!

While I was slowly leading the mom, Jason saw an opportunity to try and lead Mbilu to us.  Even Mbilu had this type of trust in us.  I had never thought our habituation protocol could be used successfully in such a manner.  Together Jason and I managed to bring the two together.

Their reaction was one of the most special experiences I have ever had with these animals.  As soon as they got close enough to see each other (Rhino do not have very good eyesight), their ears popped up and the mom was suddenly revitalised with a new energy!  They ran towards each other, completely ignoring their human guides who had to quickly make a plan to get out of the way.  Before I could stop myself, Jason even got a hug!

After we gave them some time, the two even managed to follow us back to a safe point where we could give them a bale of Lucerne to help them get some proper food in for the night.

The last hours of the afternoon went equally well.  We managed to find all the rhino and confirmed that they were safe, they were in safe areas and they still had the same old trust in us.  After such an emotional and stressful day for both us and the animals, it still managed to end on a very good note.

So far we have seen rhino several times as we continue to do our work.  I can personally tell you that these animals are all doing great.  We are in an unique position to observe them and see how they behave in their daily routine.  All their personalities are still the same, they still manage to interact with each other and the environment quite effectively and the dehorning has had no traumatic effect on them at all.