Whirlwind white rhino tagging operation is a success

RCB puts tracking devices on white rhinos to keep them safe in the Okavango Delta

In August, Rhino Conservation Botswana (RCB) completed a whirlwind operation to fit tracking devices on white rhinos living in the Okavango Delta, in order to keep these precious animals safe.

The intense three-day operation was carried out by a small, but highly skilled team, comprising RCB’s operations manager, Wilderness Safaris’ Botswana Sustainability Coordinator Michael Fitt, Helicopter Horizons pilot Michael Drager, and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks’ head vet, Dr Mmadi Rueben.

Michael Fitt places cotton wadding in the rhino’s ears to keep it quiet and calm during the tagging operation

Michael Fitt places cotton wadding in the rhino’s ears to keep it quiet and calm during the tagging operation

Four men is not many when you consider that an average white rhino bull may weigh as much as 2.3 tonnes – and may need to be moved in order to gain access or maintain a clear airway. Matters are further complicated when sedated rhinos wedge themselves into thorny bushes before coming to a halt. This means the team have to quickly remove encroaching vegetation in order to get close enough for the vet to stabilise the rhino.

Many sedated rhinos come to a halt in a bush. Then the rhino’s eyes are covered, to keep the animal calm, and its breathing is closely monitored. If necessary, oxygen will be administered.

Many sedated rhinos come to a halt in a bush. Then the rhino’s eyes are covered, to keep the animal calm, and its breathing is closely monitored. If necessary, oxygen will be administered.

Fortunately, our highly experienced team has fitted tracking devices on countless rhinos, under all sorts of challenging circumstances, and so are able to take it all in their stride.

Up before the sun each day, they identified suitable animals from the air, which were then darted with a sedative from the helicopter. By the time each rhino went to sleep, the team were on the ground nearby, ready to leap in and stabilise it.

A sedated rhino is fed oxygen from the vet’s magic box of tricks for the duration of the operation.

A sedated rhino is fed oxygen from the vet’s magic box of tricks for the duration of the operation.

Each sleeping rhino’s vital signs are closely monitored throughout the operation. Its eyes are covered and its ears are plugged to keep it quiet and calm and minimise any stress. Then an electronic tracking device is fitted. These state-of-the-art tags help our monitoring officers to keep a close eye on each individual, and ultimately keep them safe.

Each member of our experienced rhino catching team has a different role, so the operation can be completed with maximum speed and efficiency.

Each member of our experienced rhino catching team has a different role, so the operation can be completed with maximum speed and efficiency.

Once a tag has been safely fitted, the rhino is sprayed with a harmless identifying mark, which can clearly be seen from the air. This ensures that the same rhino won’t be accidentally darted again, and will wear off over time.

Then the team retreat to the safety of the helicopter, leaving the vet to bring around the patient. He injects a reversal drug and moves away quietly. Rhinos can wake up quite quickly, and if they’re confused, they can be unpredictable, so everyone waits nervously until the rhino is back on its feet and heading in the opposite direction. Then it’s on to the next rhino!

Does my bum look big in this? The vet administers a reversal to the sedative and makes sure the rhino is safely back on its feet before leaving. Each rhino is sprayed with a harmless substance so the aerial team don’t dart it again. 

Does my bum look big in this? The vet administers a reversal to the sedative and makes sure the rhino is safely back on its feet before leaving. Each rhino is sprayed with a harmless substance so the aerial team don’t dart it again. 

The operation was an outstanding success, with a impressive number of white rhino cows and bulls safely – and speedily – tagged.

After being tagged, the white rhinos are soon back up on their feet again, wondering what happened!

After being tagged, the white rhinos are soon back up on their feet again, wondering what happened!

Tracking devices are absolutely vital to RCB’s work to monitor and protect every rhino in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, but operations to fit them are expensive.

A tracking device costs about £2,800 and needs replacing regularly. Helicopter fuel and airtime costs in excess of £1,000 and with veterinary drugs and specialist equipment, such as the portable oxygen tank, you can see why these operations are a serious financial commitment.

Can you help us cover the cost of a tagging operation, and keep Botswana’s vital rhino population safe?