Precious cargo: The dangerous and vital task of moving rhino across Africa

by Todd Pitock / 04 October, 2018
Photography by Jason Florio.

“The main reason for moving rhinos is strategic,” says Richard Emslie, scientific adviser on rhinoceros for the International Union for Conversation of Nature.“You have to have more and different baskets to withstand poaching. Photo / Jason Florio

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The slaughter of rhinoceros for their valuable horns has brought the species to the brink of extinction. But there are efforts to repopulate them in areas of Africa where they've been wiped out. Journalist Todd Pitock and photographer Jason Florio joined 15 rhino on their 1,300 km relocation from a South African farm to the Okavanga Delta in Botswana.

As the sun drifted down on the rolling hills in the heartland of South Africa, Manie Van Niekerk sat with his fingers clasped in his lap. At 52, he wore his hair cropped, which along with a stolid physique gave the impression of a man who could not be easily shaken. But now he looked mournful. People were gathering at his farm to take away his 32 rhinoceros the next morning. He didn’t want to part with them.

“You fall in love with the rhino,” he told me. “You get a lot of joy looking at them. They are dinosaurs. You can look at them and imagine the world before. People think they’re clumsy, but they’re actually very graceful. They move like ballerinas.”

Van Niekerk makes his living growing maize and potatoes on a 23,000-hectare farm that has been in his family since 1926. But he always loved game, and in 2009 he acquired another 5,000 hectares to collect a covey of African antelopes, sable, kudu and eland. In 2013, he added rhino. It was just for his own pleasure.


By then, the poachers’ war on rhinos was in full fury, topping 1,000 animal deaths a year for the first time. But they were hunting mostly in Kruger Park and the areas around South Africa’s eastern border with Mozambique. Van Niekerk wasn’t concerned for his property, in the Free State Province deep in the country’s interior. Then anti-poaching responses improved and the price of rhino horn kept soaring, so the poachers began expanding into new territory.

They hit Van Niekerk's place for the first time in January 2017, again the next month, and a third time in April. They would wait for a full moon, a pattern so set that it has become known as a “poachers moon,” and Van Niekerk’s sleep patterns waxed and waned with the lunar cycle. He'd lay waiting for his phone to ring or feeling haunted by gruesome memories of an 18-year-old female that had been mutilated with an axe. Blood still gushed from where they’d hacked off the horn clear down to her facial plate and torn her open like a piece of meat. Her three-month-old calf burrowed into her side. “It was five or six hours before we could take him to a rehabilitation centre,” Van Niekerk recalled. “He just lay next to his mommy, moaning, and didn’t move. It was pathetic.”

When poachers came again last June, though, Van Niekerk’s security people intercepted them. A firefight broke out, and they wounded two poachers, who left a trail of blood as Van Niekerk’s guards gave chase, eventually capturing five of seven, who they handed over to police. Van Niekerk had had enough.

“I couldn’t keep putting my people at risk,” he said. “I couldn't go to their families next time and tell them it wasn't the poachers but one of our guys who got shot.” He added: “I am angry, and I know tomorrow when they take the rhino away I will be even more angry. But I also know I will sleep better when the rhinos are gone.”

The rhino aren't always willing travellers, loading them into the containers can take some time. Photo / Jason Florio

Africa’s rhino populations have shrunk and expanded before, peaking at 500,000 around 1900. There are two species, called white and black, with the white further divided into northern and southern subspecies. (Three other rhino species exist, in India, Bhutan, Nepal and Indonesia.) Van Niekerk’s rhinos were southern whites.

Some sources say “white” is a mistranslation of the Dutch word wijd, meaning wide, because of their wide, flat mouths, adapted for eating grasses. They grow to 2,200 kilograms and live to 50 years. They are gentle to a fault. There are stories of rhinos that put up hardly any resistance as poachers hacked at their spines with axes. Black rhinos are smaller than whites, growing to 1,360 kilograms, have rounder mouths with lips adapted for eating leaves, and are more aggressive, known for flashes of temper. And as the white isn’t white, the black isn’t black either. Both are gray. The northern white rhino subspecies has been reduced to its last two members, both females; the last male died this past March at age 45 at a reserve in Kenya.

Since 2008, poachers have slaughtered almost 8,300 animals, an especially tragic number given that a rhino’s horn can be removed without killing the animal. Unlike an elephant’s tusk, which is bone, centrehorn is keratin, the same material as fingernails and hair, and it can grow back if it's cut above the germinal layer where it connects to the facial plate. Nevertheless, the rhino population — which has been brought back from the brink of extinction before — is down to about 21,000 white and 5,000 black rhinos. South Africa’s game reserves and farms like Van Niekerk’s have 80 per cent of them. The goal is to repopulate them where they have been wiped out—among them Rwanda, Zambia and Botswana. In May, Chad airlifted in six rhino after an absence of 50 years.

It doesn’t always work out. An internal relocation in Kenya of 11 rhinos from Nairobi and Lake Nakuru national parks to Tsavo East National Park, meant to start a new population in the area, ended tragically in July after nine rhinos drank saltwater and died from dehydration. A tenth was killed by lions.

“The main reason for moving rhinos is strategic,” Richard Emslie, scientific adviser on rhinoceros for the International Union for Conversation of Nature, told me. “You have to have more and different baskets to withstand poaching. You manage rhinos like an investment share portfolio: You don’t want all your investments in one place.”

The risk is from demand in Asia, where poached horn is pulverized for use in fake medicines or fashioned into ornaments and objects, a major part of the US$17 billion annual traffic in illegal wildlife. An average white rhino horn weighs about four kilograms. Brittle parts, ground up for potions, go for $10 a gram; the dark core used to fashion trinkets, gets $180 a gram, according to Phillip Hattingh, who investigated pricing in his documentary, The Hanoi Connection. A two-to-six man poaching team receives as much as $10,000 per horn. Given their limited financial options, that sum is worth risking their lives, or the lives of anyone who gets in their way.
Occasionally, the tables turn. In July, lions ate at least three suspected rhino poachers who broke into South Africa’s Sibuya Game Reserve.

“I really never enjoyed putting rhino into boxes and sending them anywhere,” said Dave Cooper, whose job as vet of KwaZulu Natal’s provincial parks requires him to perform the depleting task of rhino postmortems, and playing a vital role in translocations including this one. “I felt sorry for them. Things that have changed now is, when I put them into a box I'm saving them.”

The rhinos' horns are removed before they're loaded in the container, in case they break it and injure themselves. Photo / Jason Florio

The conservation community is riven by differences—political rivalries, personality clashes, competition for resources and recognition, and disagreements over game management, tourism and hunting. The most contentious issues concerning rhinos, for example, are whether to dehorn them and what to do with those horns.

Opponents say dehorning deprives the animals of their primary means of centre against other animals, and mutilates the animal, and that legal trade sends a mixed message to customers in Asia even as they’re trying to blunt demand by stigmatizing horn buying. Proponents say dehorning is a deterrent to poachers, since it lowers their profits; and that horn trade is the only way to ensure that the rhinos are more valuable alive than dead, giving breeders like Van Niekerk financial wherewithal to cultivate and protect animals whose security and maintenance is otherwise unaffordable. A decision by South Africa’s High Court, in April 2017, to lift a 30-year-old moratorium on trading horn only intensified the debate. ( International trading is still banned.)

The sedative M99 is used to tranquilize the rhinos. It's thousands of times stronger than morphine . Photo / Jason Florio

More broadly, African conservation faces an unavoidable conflict between the needs of humans and animals. The United Nations forecasts Africa’s population of 1.3 billion will grow to 2.4 billion by 2050. Its governments have their hands full with providing roads and schools, hospitals and food — essentials for which some impassioned wildlife lovers have little sympathy. “Africa doesn’t have an animal problem!” one wildlife executive told me as over drinks. “It has a people problem. We don't need to cull animals. We need to cull people.”

When I repeated the comment to Les Carlisle, an old conservation hand who helped manage the translocation of Van Niekerk’s rhinos, he bridled. “Absurd," he said. "On the whole, conservation has done absolutely nothing for communities around them. It's a paternalistic relationship. We know this: When there’s benefit to the community, wildlife crime is minimal.”

History had bred suspicion among people in rural African communities, he said, and time was growing short. "If we don't change what we're doing, it'll be game-over within ten years, at least for the rhinos," Carlisle said.

"They'll be gone."

The attempt to move Van Niekerk’s rhino was organized by Rhinos Without Borders, a partnership formed by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, co-founders of Great Plains Conservation, and Joss Kent, CEO of andBeyond. Starting in 2015, both organisations have raised $4.5 million to acquire and relocate 100 rhino and then monitor them for three years. This move would bring the total to 77.

It would be the largest to date, bringing Van Niekerk’s 32 rhino to the Okavango, 1,300 kilometres distant; another eight would be flown from andBeyond’s Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. It would occur in three stages in the course of three weeks. The window of opportunity was narrow. Any day the scorching heat, following by torrential rains that would make the road through the swamps impassable, would spoil the opportunity. And no one knew whether politics would interfere or poachers would come again.
So when the permits came through in September, the relocation team jumped into action.

A rhinoceros horn can grow back if it's cut above the germinal layer where it connects to the facial plate. Photo / Jason Florio

The assembly at Van Niekerk's farm included veterinarians, a doctoral candidate doing research, a helicopter pilot, drivers, and game capturers who by necessity had become expert at managing the paperwork for the permitting and export process. “We've worked it out," Carlisle told me. "When the weight of the paper is equal to the weight of the rhino, they’ll let us go ahead.”

After a meeting to go over logistics, they broke out coolers of beer and lit up a fire pit to roast a quantity of beef and the South African sausage known as boerewors. I went with a pair of security guards to scout the ranch for places that might be vulnerable to attack. The team had hired private security for the South African leg of the trip: they didn’t trust police, whom they believed to have corrupt elements. A February 2016 report in Al Jazeera traced the poachers’ insider contacts all the way up to the state security minister, who was removed from his position.

The truck had auxiliary lights, spotlights, and light bars on the front and sides. It had a radio, an on-board camera and an arsenal including semi-automatic rifles. The guards wore flak jackets and sidearms. Trained in conservation, they’d had to learn vehicle interception, bush tracking and combat. “We've had to become paramilitary," said Brett, who asked me not to use his surname because of threats from poachers.

We drove the farm’s perimeter in the darkness. When we returned to the farmhouse we heard that Van Niekerk’s security people out in the field had been reaching for their rifles before someone thought to call and let them know that the vehicle coming toward them was us.

We arrived at sunrise at the 1,000-hectare enclosure where Van Niekerk had penned his rhinos. The day’s task was to get 15 rhinos into separate metal containers, load the containers onto two flatbed trucks, and hit the road in a convoy including the flatbeds, the security guards’ truck and a pair of minivans.

"I'm always nervous," said Grant Tracy, a game capturer managing the project’s logistics. "I've done it many times, and I'm nervous every time. The older you get, the more you realize how much can go wrong and how it can all spin out of control very quickly.”

The capture got started at dawn. An R-44, a nimble helicopter, its doors removed, hovered just above the rhinos, and one of the vets used a compressed-air dart gun to deliver a dose of M99, a sedative thousands of times stronger than morphine. It hit a female rhino's rump with a thwack; a moment later she stood still, stunned and quivering, as if she were trying to move and couldn't understand why her body was giving such resistance. Her eyes, tiny in the massive casement of her head, darted back and forth.

The team descended on her, laying hands on her face, her horn, her flank. Once they got a blindfold over her eyes, she relaxed. A half-dozen workers tipped her onto her side, bringing up a puff of dust. A researcher took blood samples, to measure and compare stress levels later. It fell to someone else to put on a plastic sleeve the length of his arm and reach into the anal canal to extract a fist-size stool sample. Another notched the rhino's ears—a form of identification.

All the while, workers kept their palms on her flank, her face and the hump at the nape of her neck, as if to reassure her. I stepped in to touch her, too. She was a mass of textures. Her back was rough. The armour on the top side of her trunk was thick, latticed in a pattern of rectangles sweeping down to the underbelly, which was full and soft. Heavy folds fell over her legs, which look jammed in, like pillars holding up a bulbous building. Her hoofed feet seemed somehow both equine and reptilian.

Van Niekerk wrested open her mouth to show me. Her upper lip was velvety, hot and tender. There was a big rough ridge along her upper lip, which felt thick, and inside was another ridge of rough bumps; the only teeth are molars. Her ears were erect; the skin behind them was as soft as an ancient and well-oiled baseball mitt. Her tail, so small, looked better suited to a piglet.

And then, of course, there was the defining feature, the object of so much grief: the horns. White rhinos have two, a long one above the mouth and a smaller one between the eyes. (Blacks rhinos also have two, but front and back can vary in proportion to each other.)

Van Niekerk took a hacksaw and removed the bigger horn. It had to come off before the rhino went into the container, or she might have broken it and injured herself. The stump was felt heavy, and as smooth as petrified rock.

They inked a number on the rhino's horn to keep track and pushed her back on her feet. They roped each of her hind legs and leashed her head, and pushed and pulled, and made judicious use of a cattle prod as they manoeuvred her toward the metal container. The rhino was still sedated, and she high-stepped even though her four legs weren't quite in sync. At the edge of the gangplank—the last step before the metal container—she swung her head and sloughed off the capturers, who regathered, tugged, heaved and hoed. Just as they got to the lip of the door and could see the end of things, she sidestepped it and started taking big strides, as if to break into a gallop. Amid a lot of shouting, I took cover behind a pickup truck until the capturers reigned her in, and this time she disappeared into the container. From above someone released the metal door, which dropped like a guillotine. Reaching through an opening in the top of the container, someone removed the blindfold.
And twenty minutes later, as the crew worked on the next rhino, we got word that she had busted out. The container's front door was missing a metal pin to secure it. The crew had to start all over with her.

They repeated the process another 14 times with the other rhino. A loader lifted the containers onto the flatbeds, and the other vehicles formed a convoy. At three in the afternoon, after nine hours in the field, we could start the journey to Botswana.

The convoy chugged north at 80 k.p.h. The schedule had us reaching the Botswana border by dusk. We got there just before 10 p.m., just before it closed for the night.

Botswana's Okavango Delta is famed for its beauty. Tourism is now the country's second-biggest industry after mining. Photo / Jason Florio

Our private security force peeled away, and Botswana Defense Forces personnel took their place. As we set out on the Trans-Kalahari Highway, the change in the security posture was striking. In South Africa, security relied on inconspicuousness and discretion. Here, it was about boldness. When the convoy stopped to refuel, soldiers spilled out of their vehicles and fanned out with their rifles. There were no threats, though, only a handful of men and women in the modern desert oasis of a gas-station convenience store who seemed happy for the break in the humdrum. The temperature had dropped, and everyone reached for fleece. One of the veterinarians climbed onto the tops of the containers to check on the rhinos, who protested their confinement by banging their bodies against the sides of the containers, which sounded like someone hitting metal with a big mallet.   

Botswana's Department of Wildlife & National Parks Anti-Poaching Unit help guard the convoy. Photo / Jason Florio

The country lost its rhinos to poachers twice before, in the 1970s and the ’80s, but it has been re-establishing the population since the early 2000s.  Its former president, Ian Khama, who stepped down on April 1, committed his military to protect the species, even stationing anti-poaching units in the bush. He also established Rhino Conservation Botswana to coordinate a growing menagerie of conservation and safari companies trying to conserve rhinos.   Khama’s successor, Mokgweetsi Masisi, has pledged to continue Khama’s rhino conservation policies.

The Texas-sized country has just 2.25 million people, mostly on its eastern flank.  The rest is a barely populated wilderness stretching across the Kalahari Desert; the Makgadikgadi Pan, a series of salt pans the size of Belgium, and the fertile, paradisal Okavango Delta. Its austere beauty can leave you slack-jawed, and tourism is now its second-biggest industry, after mining.  Botswana has tried to build the industry with lodge operators paying concession fees directly into a community trust for education, health, farming and other projects.

But rural communities and wildlife still have conflicts. And the military’s aggressiveness has other critics. In an interview with British filmmaker Tom Hardy for a documentary titled Poaching Wars, Tshekedi Khama, the president’s brother and the country’s minister for the environment, wildlife and tourism, said Botswana had a "shoot to kill" policy and described the extrajudicial execution of suspected wildlife thieves. Poachers, he said, "should start carrying their IDs so that we can notify their next of kin. Yes, God will judge the poachers, but it’s up to us to arrange the meeting”.  

Back on the road, we could see only as far as the spray of the headlights.

By noon—21 hours after we’d left Van Niekerk’s farm—we reached Main, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. We had only about 50 kilometres to go. Loaders transferred the containers to smaller, more nimble trucks that could cross the swamps. We entered where the delta met the Kalahari, bordered on two sides by rivers and laced by streams that created little islands where whole civilizations of termites had built mounds that peaked like ziggurats. The trucks plunged into pools of water that rose above the wheels, above the headlights, to the base of the cab doors; at first, it looked like they'd animals,keep sinking. 

 We arrived at the release site by nightfall. The rhinos were darted and led out of the containers, tipped onto their sides again to have more blood drawn, their ears notched to conform to the Botswana system, their ankles belted with GPS monitors.

Now, there were nearly a hundred people, among them the Jouberts, who had envisioned this project, and Map Ives, now director of Rhino Conservation Botswana who was a prime mover in the first efforts behind Wilderness Safari’s initiative to repopulate rhinos here in the early 2000s. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

Seven rhino bulls lay still on the ground, like big gray boulders, side by side. The four pairs of cow-calves would spend the night in a boma, a little stockade. They got a dose of the antidote to the sedative and their blindfolds were peeled off. Then, one by one, each rhino stirred and got upright, as if it were reformulating back into shape. A set of car headlights poured yellow light that gave golden highlights silhouetting their gray hides. The rhinos sniffed their heavy sniff, a sound accompanied but the steady mating calls of painted reed frogs. Three of the rhinos the bulls came together as if to check each one was okay as the other four came to. One took longer than the others but eventually got to his feet.

And then Van Niekerk's rhinos took the first steps they'd taken on their own in more than 40 hours, lumbering, heavy-limbed, beyond the beams of headlights toward a forest of darkness, and disappeared into it.

 


 

 A version of this article was published at Smithsonian.com. 

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