Operation to tag rhinos is a success

In September, RCB carried out a successful operation to fit tracking devices to five black rhinos in the Okavango Delta.

Critically endangered black rhinos were reintroduced to region in 2015. These shy animals are notoriously difficult to locate in the region’s dense vegetation so state-of-the-art electronic tags are a vital aid to monitoring and security. But when the device’s batteries need changing, time is of the essence to keep the rhinos safe.

We assembled a highly skilled team, who set up camp close to the area of operation, so that they could mobilise as soon as the sun rose and the right rhino was located.

RCB’s Kai Collins picks up the story…

Day One

The first challenge was finding the rhinos that needed new tags. As we began searching for fresh tracks, the helicopter team took to the air. It wasn’t long before they called to say they’d found a large female rhino named Masego (meaning ‘blessings’ in Setswana).

We raced to their location and waited for the sedative to take effect. The rhino soon began exhibiting the ‘high-stepping’ gait that is a characteristic side effect of the tranquiliser. Black rhino tend to land themselves in tricky situations once they’ve been darted, by walking into uneven terrain, thorn bushes etc so it’s crucial to get them to stop walking and lie down as soon as possible.

With this in mind, we placed a blindfold over Masego’s eyes to prevent her from taking a swipe at anyone and tied a rope around her back leg to slow her relentless forward march. She dragged us through dust and thorn bushes before we persuaded her to stop and lie down! We then quickly stabilised her and started monitoring her vital signs – pulse, breathing, temperature and blood oxygen levels – as well as administering oxygen to help keep her blood oxygen at safe levels.

Black rhino are highly sensitive to the tranquilising drugs, so they are only given a low dose and monitored closely throughout the operation. If any of their vital signs fall below safe levels, a complete reversal antidote is administered. The only trouble with such a low dose of sedative is that the rhinos tend to awaken spontaneously during the operation, so cotton wool is put in their ears to muffle sounds and keep them calm. We also kept her cool by dousing her with water.

Masego was soon fitted with a new electronic tracking device, her body condition score recorded and a sample extracted from her horn for DNA analysis. Then, as the vet administered the antidote, we retreated to the safety of the vehicles and helicopter. It’s amazing how quickly black rhinos get back up! They’re often grumpy and will charge anything that moves. So it’s wise to move well out of the way.

Our second rhino of the day was a smaller black female called Tshono (meaning ‘Good Luck’ in Setswana). After she was darted, she went down quickly in a thorn bush. The pressure was on! We needed to cut away the spiky branches from around her quickly, so that we could start monitoring her vital signs.

Just seconds later, we were able to reach Tshono, put on the blindfold and ear plugs, and roll her gently on to her side. While the tracking device was fitted, the team called out the rhino’s vital signs to the vet and the data recorder. We then moved to a safe distance as the vet administered the antidote and Tshono sprang to her feet and jogged off into the distance.

As midday temperatures soared, it was time to grab some lunch and then check camera traps. From the photos and footage, we can identify passing rhino and assess their body condition. We also followed some fresh tracks and were rewarded with a sighting of Phatsimo (meaning ‘shining light’) and her healthy young calf Pelo (meaning ‘heart’) in great condition, running free in the wilds without a care in the world – exactly how they should be!

Day Two

The following morning, the helicopter team darted a large bull called Webster, who was translocated to Botswana from South Africa. As he went down, he wedged himself between two particularly thorny bushes. So it was out with the saws to clear the vegetation as quickly as possible. Once we had fitted the tracking device, the vet gave him the antidote and he swiftly bounced to his feet and trotted off without any aggression.

The next rhino was an adult female, whose drugged locomotion came to a standstill leaning with her head gently resting on a fallen tree trunk. Due to her unusual position, we worked quickly to fit her with a tracking device. Then we watched, hidden from view, as the vet gave her the antidote. As she woke, she simply lifted her head, gazed around, perhaps wondering how she had got there, and calmly walked off.

The third animal we located was a young female named Lesedi (meaning ‘light’). She was more obliging than the others. As the sedation drugs took effect, she walked into a thorn tree, wedged herself between two, V-shaped branches and stopped, pushing the tree almost to the ground as it bore her weight.

Thanks to our dedicated and passionate team, the operation was a resounding success. These rhinos – like all of those now in the Delta – can live wild and free under RCB’s watchful eye.

Every rhino is precious. Their future is in our hands – and with your support, we will keep them safe.