It’s not everyday you get to do something with your life that makes such a profound difference. This particular day, in the cold of a May morning in the bushveld in Madikwe Game Reserve, I did.
It was a cold morning in Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa, and despite the fact I couldn’t feel my fingers and toes in the chill, the adrenalin was pumping through my veins. In fact, my face was numb as we drove through the morning mist, bouncing along the rough terrain in the open air vehicle.
It wasn’t my first time in Africa, nor on a game safari. It was actually my second time visiting Madikwe Game Reserve. It was in this very place I first stepped foot in the African bush. You could say, it is where my love of Africa was first born. Some 12 visits to South Africa since, and I have been lucky enough to spend many hours in the bush, tracking wildlife and admiring it from the safety of a vehicle.
This time was different though.
I had been briefed about the mission – to go track rhino and take part in the conservation efforts of the Anti Poaching Unit (APU) in South Africa. The members risk their lives every day in the efforts to protect the most vulnerable of wildlife. In this instance, the rhinoceros. I was in awe and admiration of these men. While I sat in the safety of my home back in Australia, sharing my dislike about rhino poaching across my social media and in conversations with friends, here were these men out in the field, actually doing something practical to help.
It is no new news that rhinos are in grave danger of poaching. Every year their numbers are dropping as they are illegally hunted in reserves across Africa. I had heard horror stories of the ways in which these poachers operated.
I remember witnessing the capture of two men in Uganda in 2017, where they unpacked and displayed the tonnes of elephant ivory onto tarps laid in the car park of the Uganda Wildlife Association Headquarters. The sight made me sick to my core. Such unnecessary slaughter of animals.
One of the ways the APU are fighting the war on poaching is to create a precise biological record of each rhino, which maximises the chances of a successful prosecution of smugglers and poachers, and thereby acts as a deterrent.
I was told there had recently been a prosecution in a nearby reserve in which a poacher had received a 29-year prison sentence, his fate sealed by the irrefutable biological evidence trail back to a specific rhino. It is a process that is working.
As I sit in the back of the vehicle heading out into the bush, I go over the requirements in my mind. My phone and camera had already been disarmed from recording any GPS locations. Due to the sensitivity of the APU members and for their security, no photos were to show their faces or give up their identity.
I arrived at the drop off site and met with the APU members and the vet who would be responsible for the safety of the rhino. There was a helicopter on site, which was up in the air within moments, off to locate an untagged rhino and dart it with a tranquilliser. With the vet and the heavily armed ground team, we took off through the bush to the sedated animal.
There in front of me, the female rhino. Her darted rear end begins to do quite the dance, like prancing through the bushveld. After a number of the APU team calmed the rhino and the sedatives kicked in, it was time to approach the animal and begin work.
All hands were on deck trying to complete tasks before the sedatives wore off. Rhino sized ear plugs were placed in her ears and a towel over her eyes to ensure minimal stress for the animal. Samples of horn and blood were taken. Her ears were ‘notched’ to create a form of identification by half circles clipped from the side of her ears. Next, a drill is produced, just like one you would use to drill into a piece of wood, and the team go to work drilling into her horn. Rhino horn is made up primarily of keratin – a protein found in hair, fingernails, and animal hooves, so the drilling does not hurt the rhino. A microchip was then inserted and a spot of wood glue used to seal it over.
Once the procedure was over, the vet injected the rhino with an agent to reverse the sedation and I quickly jumped back in the vehicle, a safer vantage point. The rhino awoke almost instantly, lumbering off through the bush as if nothing had happened.
To see that rhino return safely to the bush, knowing that it’s chance of survival had been increased and the overall survival of the species increased, was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in Africa. I admit, I was a little emotional after the whole experience.
In Madikwe, this initiative is funded largely by visitors to the reserve’s various lodges, who make donations which are dedicated entirely to that purpose.
Talking with the APU team, they suggested I pick up a copy of ‘Killing for Profit’ for some future reading to further open my eyes to the war on poaching. So far I am half way through the book and it disturbs me to say the least.