Working with rhinos is dangerous – and not for the obvious reasons. Yes, they are short-sighted, nervous, incredibly fast over 50 meters, weigh more than a ton and have sharp pointy bits on the front. But the really dangerous part about working with them is the vehicles.
Let me explain. The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust provides operating support (that’s money and expertise) annually to a small charity, the Dambari Wildlife Trust (DWT), based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. That trust carries out a lot of work in and around the Matobo Hills National Park, which contains one of the world’s iconic landscapes, and also the largest surviving populations of black and white rhinos in western Zimbabwe. Those populations are carefully managed because they are so precious, and every rhino is captured, ear-notched, and a transponder tag is inserted in one of the horns. This work has been ongoing for over a decade.
The procedure is known as ‘rhino operations’; DWT organises them every year, in the cool dry season (May to September), and provides the logistical support to the capture teams. The teams have a fixed wing aircraft to spot the rhinos; a helicopter to get the veterinarian close enough to dart them; and trucks and other vehicles to transport the animals if they need to be moved to another park for reasons of genetic management. It’s a complex operation, and although the teams are now very skilled at it, things still go wrong.
A few years ago the helicopter clipped a tree on landing and turned over on its side, injuring the veterinarian and totally writing off the machine. During this year’s operations the fixed wing aircraft ‘made a heavy landing and hit a tree’, which sounds pretty much like an air crash to me, but fortunately nobody was hurt. Then, earlier this month a DWT Land Rover overturned on a road near the Matobo hills and, tragically, a passenger was killed after being thrown out of the vehicle. Strictly speaking the vehicle wasn’t on rhino operations at the time, but it could easily have been.
In all that time not one person has been hurt by a rhino.
The increase in elephant and rhino poaching in southern Africa has been one of the headline conservation stories throughout the world in the last few years. The rhinos in the enormous Hwange National Park, in northern Zimbabwe, have been completely exterminated and sometimes we wonder how it is that the Matobo rhinos still survive. The only recent poaching incident there was in November 2013 when two bull white rhino were machine-gunned to death in the middle of the park during a night of heavy rain.
Unusually, the poachers made no attempt to hide the evidence, for example by collecting the spent bullet casings, and they didn’t have time to remove the horns before a ranger team, which heard the gunfire, responded. It was such an unusual case that we wondered if the motives were different from normal poaching events; perhaps related to local politics around the reserve. It is impossible to isolate any national park, particularly one as small and surrounded as Matobo, from the communities around it. The park exists because those communities tolerate it; our challenge is to help them come to love and value it for its own sake. How we do that is such a complex issue that it will have to be the subject of another blogpost in the future!
Executive Director, Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust