ON the 5th September, 2023 members from the Tanzania High Commission in Pretoria joined the conservationists from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) to visit the Phinda Game Reserve in Kwa Zulu Natal-SA for discussion on anti-poaching methods and other conservation and wildlife protection techniques.
During the visit, the delegation also had a rare opportunity of taking part in the dehorning exercise of White Rhinoceros at the reserve.
Phinda Private Game Reserve established in 1991, is set within the Mun-Ya -Wana conservancy and encompasses 29,866 hectors (73,800 acres) of fenced protected wildlife in the Kwa Zulu Natal near the Kruger National Park (KNP) though not part of that greater ecosystem.
The word “Phinda” means “Return” in Isizulu (Zulu). Rhino de-horning is a temporary safeguard against poaching, a commonly adopted strategy these days for helping to decrease the number of rhinos killed for their horns.
Statistics show that the number of rhinos has plummeted drastically in the recent times.
A rhino horn is a lucrative business in some countries. But with no horns, experts believe poachers have no reason to target and kill these animals which are on the verge of extinction.
Dehorning process causes no pain or bleeding to the rhinos and these horns normally grow again just like human hair or fingernails.
The dehorning process is not for the faint hearted and we need to give much credit to our conservation and wildlife rangers for carrying out this complex and painstaking worthwhile task.
There are two types of rhinos in our region white and black rhinos. But the names can be misleading because they both have almost the same greyish colour.
The main difference is black rhinos are smaller in size compared to white ones. White Rhinos also have wider mouth (square lips) in comparison to the black ones which have smaller mouth with hooked upper lips.
The word white comes from the Afrikaner’s word ‘wyd’ meaning ‘wide’ with some pronunciation sounding like ‘white’ and hence the sticking of the name white rhinos.
Behaviour wise, black rhinos are more aggressive and quicker to charge whenever feel threatened.
On the other hand, white rhinos are said to be very protective of their calves most of the times keeping close in front of them while black rhinos leave their calves behind trailing them, while moving which at times make them become easy prey to some opportunistic predators such as hyenas and others.
So, in the morning hours of 6th September in the Phinda Game Reserve the dehorning exercise, started by first selecting the ‘candidates’ i.e., the rhinos to be de-horned.
This process was kick-started by first dispatching a drone, an all-weather and a highly versatile one to conduct an aerial search to locate the ‘candidates’ before the helicopter was sent airborne for action.
Drones are normally used first to minimise the cost of keeping the helicopters in the air for a long time.
However, on this day, the drone failed to spot the right candidates and the helicopter had to be scrambled into the air to conduct the search
. It managed to pinpoint two white rhinos – a mother and a calf with seizable horns to be dehorned for their safety. After locating the right ‘candidates’, the helicopter radioed the message to the ground team comprising of several ground vehicles, experienced veterinarians and a team of skilled trackers and rangers which rushed to the area.
At this time the helicopter was hovering overhead pushing the rhinos towards a relatively safe patch of the ground where it could run without injuring itself.
Once at a safe place, a veterinarian from the helicopter shot a tranquilliser dart and the ground teams followed the rhinos for few minutes until they got too drowsy to run and fell down after which they were blindfolded and given earplugs to lessen stress from outside sounds.
While still on the ground many procedures were conducted simultaneously on the now sedated animals, including micro-chipping, ear notching for identification, collection of DNA samples (tail hair, blood and horn shaves) and the cutting of the horns using a chainsaw.
The cutting of the horn was done by careful measuring to ensure is made just above the growth point without causing bleeding or pain.
The chainsaw is used to quickly cut the horn minimising the number of tranquillisation’s needed.
After all procedures were completed, the rhinos were given the antidote to the sedative which made them regain consciousness and got back on its feet and off they disappeared into the bush.
This is one of the differences in behaviour between white and the much aggressive black rhinos.
The rhino population in Tanzania is mostly the ‘hyper aggressive’ black rhinos. Normally, when the antidote is applied to wake them up after the dehorning procedures, all the personnel and vehicles are kept at a far distance from the dehorning spot.
This is so because these offspring of the ‘famous Faru John’ in Ngorongoro and even those in the Serengeti National Park, after regaining consciousness they normally become very agitated and start furiously charging when they pick any movement on their line of sight though are also said to have a poor eyes sight and mainly relying on their strong sense of smell.
There is currently an ongoing debate on the dehorning programme. Many wildlife experts agree that the dehorning process of rhinos is safe and reduces the number of rhinos killed for their horns.
No pain or bleeding during the dehorning procedures and these horns grow again to a seizable size after 18 to 24 months.
However, other experts are concerned of the new trend by some poachers who still target the dehorned rhinos, “…. by shaving off the stumps with pangas or axes down the skulls, stacking them together to make up the size of a full horn…”
And yet others contend that the behaviour of the dehorned rhinos change at the initial stages and they lose confidence at times making them lose their territories.
However, this is the discussion best to be left to our wildlife experts. All in all, there seems to be a general consensus among many wildlife experts that rhinoceros dehorning programme is a worthwhile undertaking aimed at saving this critically endangered species.
As for wildlife lovers and tourists, who frequent to our scenic game reserves and parks, it is always a refreshing experience when sighting a beautiful live rhino strolling and foraging in the bush even if with a slightly reduced horn size.
- The writer, Maj Gen Gaudence Milanzi (rtd) is the Tanzania High Commissioner to South Africa