Releasing an animal back into the wild is a deeply profound moment one can experience in the world of conservation.

A personal encounter in the translocation of an endangered species… Rhino

In the morning, we started driving far into the countryside through winding roads, past rocky mountain peaks, and spectacular bushveld landscapes scattered with the occasional animal in the distance.

The vehicles speeding by seem not to notice the giraffes, warthogs, kudus, and the dozens of other African animals just off the roadway. But in our dusty, air-conditioned SUV, we are all too aware of each living creature spotted through the glass windows. Anticipation and eagerness are at the front of our minds, as we head towards a life-changing event that involves one of Africa’s most emblematic creatures.

In the orange evening glow of a sunset, we park the car at a comfortable bushcamp where we will stay for the night as the adventure will start way before dawn and far from the Mapesu Private Game Reserve. We grab a bite to eat and enjoy the conversation over a game of billiards and meet the person, the coordinator, of whom will usher us through the experiences to come.

As the evening closes, the secretive whispers begin the discussion on when and how to proceed for tomorrow. Away from any stranger’s ears, he talks about the rhinos, their general condition, what groups we will be working with, what are our positions and roles, the details on the timing and schedule, as well as answer questions we had. The only thing he did not share was the location of the animals. This confidential information is critical to the safety of all parties, not just the rhinos. Only a handful of trusted people will know the location, thereby lessening the risks for all involved.

The coordinator mentions a case where poachers would find the transport vehicles or have information on the routes of a translocation, and hijack the trucks holding the rhino cargo. He also tells us that we must make sure we minimize attention while on the roadway, stopping only for gas so that people cannot look inside the containers and see the rhinos.

As we leave the dining space and depart for bed, one cannot help but notice the brilliant night African sky. The immense white glow of the Milky Way speckled with radiating stars outlined by a deep and dark backdropped compels us to linger a few minutes under their gaze. We stand quietly transfixed on the heavens above while contemplating the historical event to come.

The alarms go off on our phones around the same time, although the yawns and stretches in creaking beds are louder than the phones. It’s about an hour and a half before dawn, and a dull, low glowing light in the middle of the small bush camp facility makes it difficult to waken the senses. Still, we are up quickly and prepared to leave as we had taken showers in the evening to maximize the speed in which to get ready. We gather outside in the parking space, and in hushed voices, the coordinator organizes the motorcade and gives us general directions on where to go. We must know, as mobile phone service is often not available in the remote parts of South Africa. They share the general direction, but the goal is to follow right behind in a convoy fashion. Off we go, first to the gas station with the two main cargo trucks at the back, us in the middle, and the coordinator as the lead vehicle.

Glorious sunsets and sunrises are famous in Africa and for a good reason as the colors of deep purple, brilliant orange and velvety red dominate the edge of the world. Some grey rain clouds are looming around today, which can be positive when it comes to translocations, as heat can be a deadly enemy to an animal during the process. We continue driving for a few hours as the clouds dissipate, and patches of clear blue sky breakthrough. As the weather heats up, so do our concerns. The roadway started paved and has become dusty with scattered patches of deep pools of water, which the whole convoy wiggles carefully around.

We are closer… Without much notice, we are joined by three more vehicles, later of which we found to be the veterinary and the property owners of where the rhinos are located and more team members to assist. It had been almost three hours of driving, but we finally stop at a fenced area and allowed passage through, parking near the entrance. This is the base camp –a designated area in which to prepare for the next phase of the process.

It is here the vet gets his supplies ready –everything he needs to ensure he has the right equipment, all the medication to be used for any possible scenario. The crew and drivers get their chance to have a break from the long drive, while we sit in awe of the coordination done by this experienced group of people. Within a half an hour, the thumping of a helicopter is heard as it hovers around us and lands safely down the road from where we are. Out pops the assistant vet and a pilot, to discuss the location of the first two rhinos named Insocial and Forum9.

With excitement in the air, we are told what will happen next and what to prepare for. The speed in which we all respond is important to the wellbeing of the rhinos. Without this coordination and response, the risk factor to all involved, animals and humans alike, can increase.

Ready, steady, GO!

The vet, with his equipment box, and dart gun as well as the pilot enter the helicopter, and it moves quickly away to the general area where the rhinos were spotted. The chopper will herd the rhinos closer to where there is a roadway with good access for us. Meanwhile, we all jump in a few vehicles, and head towards the general direction followed more slowly by the container vehicles. Radio communication between the chopper and the ground crew is constant, and within 10 minutes, we can see a large grey animal standing unsteadily. The helicopter lands nearby to drop the Vet off and then takes off again, away from where we are working. The assistant Vet that was in a vehicle is out and already running to the animal while we jump out of the vehicle and to wait for the command to come over.

The crew is around the animal, which has now toppled over to her side. She is entering into a deep sleep, her breath quick, steady, and heavy while her leg shakes slightly. Rhinos do not have good eyesight, but they use their sense of smell and hearing to compensate. It takes a few people to lift her head to help wrap a large sheet over her eyes and cloth into her ears to help remove some stimulation, thereby lessening her stress. The vets are constantly watching over her, checking for chips, checking her vitals, measure her horns, and other information for record.  With a small drill, they begin to insert the microchip into her horn for tracing, and at the same time take a sample of the horn for DNA as well as adding the tracking ankle monitor. It is fast-paced for a reason –the faster everything can be completed, and the sedation is removed, the better her chance for recovery.

The feelings are mixed for me –excitement, knowledge grasping of the process seen before my eyes, deep reflection, and profound primal instinct of concern, protection, and respect comes to the surface, especially when I touch the thick, dusty, aged skin of this amazing creature lying helplessly on its side. For the crew, it’s a job to be done with precision and concentration.

With all the items completed, Insocial is ready to wake up and be placed into the truck for transport. The vet counteracts the tranquilizer as a group of people come to her side to help her to raise her to her feet. Everyone is quiet except for the vet that will direct the group through vocal command. On cue, they help push her up on one side. She’s uncertain, but with the extra push, she’s able to get up. She is still a bit groggy and falls back down so they attempt to move her again. They have a large cord attached to her horn to help pull her head towards the direction she needs to go. She’s still blindfolded and has a cloth in each ear. They help her up, pushing and guiding her up the ramp and into the crate. Inside the crate, there isn’t much room; better so that they do not have too much room to shift around while in transport. The vet removes the blindfold and earplugs as well as injects her with a calming agent for the long ride. The process is faster than imagined.

At this point, you are probably wondering why we have to go to the extent of taking an animal and moving it from one place to another? Translocations are essential to maintaining healthy populations of endangered species, such as the rhinos. Since the population has been decimated, and their territories lessened, by splitting up the population via relocation it allows the expansion for their genetic diversity, positions them them in more suitable habitats, and promotes conservation-based tourism, which will help to finance their protection. In our case, it’s all of the above. But it also to reintroduce them into their natural habitat, that unfortunately through history was once cattle farming region. Having one dominant species, such as cattle, creates a chain reaction that impacts flora and fauna severely. The Shared Universe group’s goals for the Mapesu Reserve are to rewild the space by reintroducing endangered and native animals, and plants to this decimated land in order to bring back a healthy and sustainable ecosystem. We, at Mapesu, are proud caretakers of the land, the animals, and the people that call it home.

One down, two to go

Time is ticking for us to get them to Mapesu before dark. Forum9 is just 800 meters away down the dirt road, a great place to go down as there is no brush around like in the case of Insocial.  We all jump back into the vehicles to rush over to his side. Upon arrival, the same process is done. Axel helps lift his head so that they cover his eyes, and plug his ears. The process happens over again as with the first.

Forum9 is big and has a beautiful horn. It is terrible to think that they are poached simply for the fact that people in Asia using traditional Chinese medicine believe that the horns hold special medical advantages, which are scientifically disproven to be of any medicinal value. Rhino horns are composed primarily of keratin, the same protein that is found in fingernails and hair. The usage also leans upon a status symbol for the rich to showcase their wealth as rhino horn is very costly. In 2018, the Chinese government lifted the 25-year ban on rhino horn and tiger bone trade, thereby making it legal to use in medical research and traditional medicine, a move that has shaken the animal conservation world. It is a clear win for the illegal trade and a huge hit to global conservation efforts.

He snores deeply, even while all the commotion is happening around him, and we finalize everything quickly. He is easily guided into one of the two crates in the truck. Now, it’s time to get Orange Pearl, the last of our rhinos. She’s located in a different undisclosed area. So, we once again form a convoy and follow the group to the next region, another 2 hours away. We are already heading into the early afternoon and time is now a pressure as driving in the dark is more dangerous on roads that often have a wondering animal crossing-

As we arrive inside the property and set up the base camp, further discussion on the tactics for this location is defined.  This terrain is different from the last with more trees and shrubs making it harder to find a clear, suitable space for them to wrangle and tranquillize her. Within 40 minutes or so, we get the green light to jump in the vehicles and head over to where she is. It’s a bit of a drive, but we see her on the edge of a dirt road with enough space for most of the vehicles. The chopper lands and running out is the vet to start the process over again.

At first glance, there were comments that Orange Pearl might be pregnant. An analysis was taken to be sent off to confirm the suspicion, which indeed found she was pregnant! She was so beautiful, large and gentle with a horn that course hair at the base. She didn’t struggle even though she wasn’t fully asleep. She had her head slightly raised and was passive the entire encounter. A vision of her wabbling with unsure footsteps and the hands of the many people helping her into the crate is forever engraved in my mind. But it is with love, respect, care, and responsibility that we lay our hands on these creatures in the hope that the efforts made, albeit difficult, will help to bring them peace, security, and ultimately maintain the survival of their species.

With all three rhinos placed in the two vehicles, we thank the group for their preparation, coordination, and participation in the monumental event and leave for home with the convoy following behind us. It’s a long drive, and as we communicate with our team on the ground at the Reserve with estimations on arriving later than expected. During our drive back, we cannot stop chatting about the experience, not the first translocation for most of the team but one that is historic and emblematic for Mapesu and Shared Universe.

It’s late in the evening when they arrive at their new home. There are a few guests staying at the Mopane Bush Lodge and the Mapesu Wilderness Camp that were lucky enough to be at the right time and place to see the release of the three rhinos.

An area had been designated for their release, one trailer parked next to the other so that we can release them in the same relative space. The game viewer with the guest is a safe distance away. A minimal amount of light is used so that they cannot see around and focus on anything other than leaving. The crowd becomes quiet as two people drop down from the trailer to open the heavy doors of the crate. Once they are lowered to the ground, the two  silently jump back up to the side of the crate exterior wall to safety. As the rhinos are most likely in a defensiveness state from being uprooted, they can possibly be aggressive, so having low lights and the quiet can help calm them. Don’t forget, they have all their senses back, smelling and hearing especially to guide them in the dark.

The first two releases go well, but the last, Orange Pearl lingers around the crate, sniffing the air, the ground and heads towards any slight movement or noise. She seems more curious than upset. It gives everyone a chance to revel at the view of this enormous and hearty creature. It takes her almost 20 minutes before she turns and moves silently between the shrubs and into the darkness –into her new life…