Operation Rhino Recovery is a success

 A wandering white rhino cow is carefully manoeuvred through the thick bush to a waiting crate to take her home to the Okavango Delta and safety. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

A wandering white rhino cow is carefully manoeuvred through the thick bush to a waiting crate to take her home to the Okavango Delta and safety. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

When black and white rhinos are relocated to Botswana, these pioneering individuals are understandably keen to learn about their new home and often roam around, covering great distances, before settling down.

Here in the Okavango Delta, translocated rhinos released from travel crates or temporary enclosures walk around the local area trying to find and identify others of their kind. Since they have poor eyesight, rhinos rely on their incredible sense of smell. They leave messages in the form of dung piles or ‘middens’ and spray urine, then enhance their scent signature by scraping with their back legs. You’ll often see them in the field with their noses pressed to the ground, inhaling another rhino’s smell.

 A rhino dung pile or midden is like Facebook for rhinos, giving information about who's around and what they're up to. Photo courtesy of Neil Aldridge

A rhino dung pile or midden is like Facebook for rhinos, giving information about who's around and what they're up to. Photo courtesy of Neil Aldridge

When a young rhino reaches around five- or six-years-old, its mother and large resident males start insisting it should move on. By this time, its mother may already have another calf and even a third on the way, so it’s time for the youngster to find its own territory. Some form ‘gangs’ and wander around close to home, while others leave their original home range and move further afield, tempted by fresh vegetation and water.

Rhinos have favourite grasses, trees and shrubs, many of which leaf up once a year during the long summer days when there’s a splash of rain. These juicy delights are enough to persuade hungry individuals to walk long distances to areas far from the Okavango Delta. Here, their marathon efforts are rewarded by good food and they put on weight and condition rapidly.  

 Some rhinos (this is a black rhino) will walk enormous distances to reach a new flush of fresh, green vegetation, especially when there's plenty of water around. Photo courtesy of Neil Aldridge

Some rhinos (this is a black rhino) will walk enormous distances to reach a new flush of fresh, green vegetation, especially when there's plenty of water around. Photo courtesy of Neil Aldridge

In recent years, Rhino Conservation Botswana (RCB) has monitored several young rhinos that have walked an impressive 300km or more in just a few weeks to reach lush grass and water. They just seem to keep walking! This range expansion and recolonisation of what was, historically, rhino territory (before they were poached out in the 1980s) is perfectly normal. But we keep a careful eye on these individuals.

Most of them spend a few weeks or months feeding up, then return to the delta when the water starts to dry up. But others wander into areas that are too close to local villages for comfort or considered poaching ‘hotspots’. That’s when we have to take action.

After assessing the situation, RCB and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) may decide to recover these rhinos and return them to the heart of the Okavango Delta, where they are safest. We usually return them to an area where there’s good habitat and a few friendly rhinos but less pressure from territorial males. In 90% of cases, the wanderers settle down quickly in their new location.

 Last November, a white rhino female known as WF208 got itchy feet and decided to go walkabouts. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

Last November, a white rhino female known as WF208 got itchy feet and decided to go walkabouts. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

Late last November, our monitoring officers reported that a beautiful young white rhino cow known as WF208 had left the delta and was heading into unsafe territory. The area she was wandering into was both vast, covering around 800,000 hectares, and consisted of impenetrable bush, a mosaic of mopane scrub, teak and silver-leafed Terminalia bushes. There were few tracks and no way we could drive a 4x4 truck in.

Accompanied by the Botswana Anti-Poaching Unit (APU) and soldiers from the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), our ground monitoring teams kept a close eye on the foolish female until the operation to recover her could begin. While in the skies above, we kept up surveillance in RCB’s brilliant Aviat Husky aircraft.

 Pony Transport's 4x4 truck – carrying a specially built rhino crate – was undaunted by the challenging terrain. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

Pony Transport's 4x4 truck – carrying a specially built rhino crate – was undaunted by the challenging terrain. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

Back in Maun, Pony Transport organised a 4x4 truck to carry the rhino crate, then we set off for the long journey to the rhino’s location. The roads were rough and seldom used, so it’s only thanks to the skill of their truck driver that we got there at all!

 If there's a river between us and a wandering rhino, then it simply has to be crossed. The truck and rhino crate catch a lift. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

If there's a river between us and a wandering rhino, then it simply has to be crossed. The truck and rhino crate catch a lift. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

As soon as everyone was in position, WF208 was located and the vehicles and ground crew (including the monitoring coordinator of our partners, Rhinos Without Borders (RWB)) assembled nearby. Then RWB veterinarian Dr Markus Hofmeyr and Dr Mmadi Reuben, the DWNP’s Chief Veterinary Officer, took to the air to dart her with a sedative. With the legendary Captain Michael Drager (retired) at the controls, Helicopter Horizons’ nimble aircraft soon had them in position and eight minutes later WF208 was sleeping soundly.

As the vets checked her breathing and vital signs were steady, the ground crew figured out the best route to walk her to the waiting truck, which was not as near as we would have liked, due to the dense bush. Then the vets partially revived WF208 and gently got her back on her feet. She was blindfolded to protect her eyes from dust and a long, strong rope was wound around her horns to guide her forward, while men to the sides and rear kept her moving. 

 The female rhino is a bit groggy from the sedative as she is carefully walked to the waiting truck. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

The female rhino is a bit groggy from the sedative as she is carefully walked to the waiting truck. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

Sluggishly and with enormous effort she was coaxed, step by step, through the rugged terrain. Once we got to the road, loading her into the crate was a comparatively easy exercise. Then the crate was loaded on to the truck for the long drive home.

A day or so later, WF208 was back home. We chose a huge grassy plain close to a river to release her, and when we opened the crate door, she wandered out slowly as if nothing had happened.

 If you're determined enough, you can drive a huge truck into the most surprising places. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

If you're determined enough, you can drive a huge truck into the most surprising places. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

Since the recovery, we’ve been monitoring WF208 closely. As anticipated, she has met up with some other white rhinos in the area and completely settled down. The operation was a huge success.

Though rhino recoveries are both challenging and expensive operations, they are worth it because, today, every rhino is precious. I am so proud of the incredible cooperation, between so many different organisations and individuals in Botswana, that keeps these animals safe and well. The commitment and courage of everyone involved is humbling and inspiring – together, we can do it!

Map Ives
Director RCB

 We have returned our wandering rhino cow to a beautiful area of the Okavango Delta. Here, she leaves her transport crate, none the worse for her adventure. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

We have returned our wandering rhino cow to a beautiful area of the Okavango Delta. Here, she leaves her transport crate, none the worse for her adventure. Photo courtesy of Marcus Hofmeyr

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