• January 2022

Thirty rhino for 30 years

Phinda: Coming full circle; a story about what is possible when we give nature a chance

They say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and it is equally true that a journey of 2 000 miles begins with a single decisive action. In the case of the translocation of 30 white rhinos from South Africa to Akagera National Park in Rwanda (just over 2 000 miles away) in November 2021, that unique catalytic moment was the establishment of &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve all the way back in 1991. At the time, there were no white rhinos at all on the land that is now Phinda. 

It’s the nature of a journey that we seldom know what lies over the next horizon yet, by remaining true to course, eye on the destination, chances are that the outcome will exceed the wildest of expectations. This has certainly been our experience. Thirty years ago, just shy of 30 white rhinos were introduced onto the fledgling &Beyond Phinda. Three decades of conservation triumphs and challenges ensued, but right at the juncture of our 30th anniversary, we were exceedingly proud to see 30 of our Phinda white rhinos shared with Akagera National Park, for the establishment of a brand new founder population there. Now that’s a journey that has come full circle.

Making history from the get-go

It was just a small group of visionary conservationists that had the rather grand ideal of creating a contiguous conservation landscape between the Mkuze and Mzinene wetlands in northern KwaZulu-Natal back in 1991. To commence their dream, parcels of available farmland were purchased and a fortuitous deal was struck with a nearby property looking to sell much of their game. While still frantically erecting fences in an effort to secure the area for wildlife, Phinda took receipt of its first 25 white rhinos.

There was no shortage of determination as the Phinda founding fathers, whose conservation team was astutely led by Les Carlisle, embarked on a capture that would see history made right at the outset of this reserve’s journey: the largest translocation of white rhino at the time, that had been moved in a single day, amounting to 21 of the 25 earmarked behemoths. 

How humbling, then, all these years later, for Phinda to once again be part of a record moment in rhino conservation history. In collaboration with African Parks and the Rwanda Development Board, with funding from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, a surplus of 30 rhinos from a now thriving Phinda population were provided for the move – making for the largest single rhino translocation effort to date.

The instruments of success

Unlike the original translocation that took a day and a bit, and involved a few trucks, this effort took over 40 hours, involved many tons of steel in the form of huge vehicles, crates, chains and cranes, a massive game capture unit spanning two countries and countless experts, and a Boeing 747. This assembly of instruments threatened to be a clamorous affair, but when moving parts work together in harmony at the hands of skilled conductors, the overall effect is as impressive as an orchestral symphony: the narrative carefully woven together by each participating sound, and a melody that resonates far into the future.

The whir of helicopter blades

The helicopter taking off signals the initiation of the capture day, fuelling the exhilaration and anticipation the assembled ground crews are typically feeling at the start of the process. Once things get underway, there’s no time for sentiment, just concentration and action. The helicopter is staffed with pilot, spotter and veterinarian – all extremely competent and experienced in their trades. This job demands it.

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Navigating the bird over wild terrain while directing and ushering the animals into the open – where they can be darted and accessed by the ground team – is certainly no flight-in-the-park. But neither is identifying a particular individual from way up in the sky, which is the role of one of the conservation team aka the spotter. A careful list itemising the potential rhino candidates for removal is drawn up in advance, with details of sex, age and ear-notching. The spotter must identify, cross-reference and select targets on the ground based on this list and their intimate knowledge of the rhinos in the population. This process is essential to ensure a viable mix of gender and age classes to form the new founder population giving them the best chance of survival and productivity in their new habitat.

Then it’s the vets turn: to draw up exactly the correct amount of the immobilising drug, M99, relative to the size of the animal, into the dart; to lean forward out of the doorless, hovering chopper; to align the sights of the air-pessured dart gun on the correct part of the bobbing rhino; and then to fire accurately accounting for distance and air interference.

The whoosh-thud of a dart

Remarkably, those darts defy the forces of atmospheric thrust and drag, hitting the right spot on the rhino nine out of ten times and leading to the initiation of the minutes-long process that will see the rhino stop jogging in confusion and begin to high-step in a progressively wonky manner. This gait signals to the ground crew, loitering just out of harm’s way, that the rhino will shortly be sedated enough to approach.

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The radio call from the chopper would have been received by the game capture crew as soon as the dart found its mark – in fact, constant radio communication keeps the cruisers (loaded with ropes, veterinary gear and meds, microchips and chip readers for identification, as well as all manner of personnel) in touch with the chopper team ensuring they are able to access the site as soon as the rhino goes down. In turn, the loading trucks are kept on standby to follow suit.

Nobody moves without the go-ahead from Kester Vickery or Grant Tracy (in their respective teams). These game capture specialists have many decades of experience and expertise under their belts – in fact, Grant started his game capture career shortly before participating in the very capture that saw the original rhinos moved onto Phinda. Blindfold at the ready, once the signal is given, the first of the team approaches to skillfully cover the rhino’s eyes, allowing it some respite from the confusion of the world now blurring around it. Earplugs will also be inserted as soon as the enormous creature has sunk down onto the ground, but now the remainder of the ground crew is needed.

The thump of heavy boots

The clock has started. The rhino can’t be left to lie on its chest a moment longer than necessary as it will crush its own lungs. Gauging the progression of the blindfold process from a safe distance, a unit of fleet-footed professionals carrying rattling boxes of equipment rapidly make for the stationary, sightless beast like a wave carrying its white horseman to the shore. 

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Urgent feet pound over uneven terrain. All hands are needed on deck to push the animal onto its side. The faster it can be processed and loaded, the better. The hind foot is quickly anchored by heavy ropes – tightly gripped by strong hands, this will serve as a braking device once the rhino is partially awoken and walked to its transport crate, and another front rope is fastened in the front to guide it.

THE CLICK-A-CLACK OF MEN AT WORK

A flurry of science and technology unfolds around the tranquillised animal as wildlife monitors and their helpers measure literally everything, sample blood and tissue, treat dart- and other wounds, spray for parasites, read existing microchips and insert new ones as per national regulations, cross-check identification with the capture list, draw giant numbers in special paint or chalk on the flanks and ear-notch or ear-tag as required. If a cow and calf have been darted simultaneously, the team divides to conquer the tasks on both animals at the same time.

It’s a buzz of activity, less synchronised perhaps on rhino number one and two with a hubbub of urgent instructions constantly exchanged, but the operation becomes progressively slicker with each rhino darted, until the well-oiled machine is achieving every obligatory task seamlessly and time efficiently. This is a top notch operation run by a world class team.

A hmph of expelled air

Being so close to such a large, powerful animal rendered so vulnerable by a needle and small vial of liquid, is sobering. The protracted hmph of warm air escaping wide, quivering nostrils in a long exhale as people clamour around it, serves as a poignant reminder that this is very much a living being on which all these technical routines are being executed. Placing a hand on the warm skin on the side of the face or in the crook of a limb will deliver the same realisation. The skin may be thick and rough, often caked with mud and obese ticks, giving the false sense that a rhino has protective armour, but if that were indeed the case, this entire operation would be moot.

It is exactly because these gentle giants are totally defenceless against our own species that all of this is necessary. High-levels of poaching continue to exert unsustainable pressure on white rhino populations in South Africa and beyond so the whole point of this historic initiative is to extend their range to new places in Africa. By creating a secure breeding stronghold in Rwanda, which currently has no white rhinos, population growth is supported, underpinning the long-term survival of this species in the wild.

A swish of a twitching ear

It takes a second needle and vial of liquid to awaken the rhino, well partially so, enough to enable it to get up (with a little help from its human friends and the heavy ropes). Adult rhinos weigh in at over a ton, the bulls often over two tons, so the reversal agent is key to enabling the behemoth to carry its own body weight into the crate. Of all the lessons learned over the many years of pioneering translocation techniques (of which many of the people present have been an integral part), working out that rhinos can walk themselves into transport crates was the cleverest by far!

Outstretched hands direct the enormous and somewhat unsteady body on either side, the steering team in the front and the braking team at the rear controlling the pace of progress. It’s a poignant moment – hands being used to care and conserve counterpoint those other hands that would persecute and eliminate.

The clang of heavy moving equipment

By the time the ground crews have wrapped up the measuring and monitoring, the loading trucks have rumbled into proximity and yet another expert is at work – the crane operator. To transport the rhinos from the field to the holding camps (bomas) where they will spend six weeks in quarantine before transfer, they will need to be lifted: firstly onto the truck, and then over the fence and into the bomas. For this, specially custom-built steel crates are used – just wide and long enough to accommodate a particular size-class of rhino to help avoid injury of any sort – and these are attached to the crane via hefty metal chains affixed by nimble men that seem to balance and hang precariously from all manner of dangerous moving parts in the process. It is the crane operator’s job to move the crates up and down safely and precisely, for both rhino and human’s sake.  

A sliding door reveals the entrance to the crate but this too is heavy and requires lifting by the crane. It is into this opening that the rhino is guided, ropes being looped through a hole in the roof on the closed end while the door is lowered behind the animal. The same hole acts as an access point for members of the capture team and the vets to remove blindfolds and administer more drugs to fully awaken, but simultaneously calm, the rhino passenger. As the crate is manoeuvred into place onto the waiting truck, a crane-mounted scale registers its weight – yet another vital detail to record. Then it’s time to repeat the process on the next rhino. The chopper is already back in the air and searching. In total, it ends up taking the team three days to capture all 30 rhinos according to the special list and across different sections of the reserve.  

The murmur of concerned voices

Kester, Grant, Les, Simon Naylor (Phinda’s conservation manager) and Dr Dave Cooper (veteran wildlife vet) huddle together in the open area between the three bomas, voices lowered in tones of concern. The plane has been delayed – again. It is now over two months since the rhinos were first brought to the bomas and an enormous team of capture personnel are assembled to execute the most complex part of the exercise, the actual translocation to Rwanda.

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A spectacular array of 30 newly painted transport crates are lined up in two rows with doors open like wide mouths gaping in hungry yawns. The five transport truck-and-trailers take up what remains of the space, ready and waiting to be loaded with precious cargo. Once the first dart goes in, the team is on the clock to achieve the long-distance transfer to Rwanda which ideally should not take longer than 45 hours, but they’re hoping for a 36 hour turnaround.

The weather has delivered perfect conditions – cool and slightly damp. The trucks won’t jam in the glue-like mud produced by rain downpours possible at this time of year. Also, in early-November in KZN, temps can soar well above 40˚C and heat is the enemy of game capture, the metal crates turning to heat traps for their temperature sensitive occupants that must stand inside them for hours on end. First during loading and again at the Durban cargo port.

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Then throughout the reversal of the process once they land in Kigali. Once inside, the rhinos don’t won’t drink. The team is eager to make use of the ideal conditions. But the call has just come in, the Boeing 747’s arrival in Durban is delayed by 6 hours from wherever it had to deliver its last hold of cargo across the planet – this the proverbial insult on top of the injury that saw the entire operation held up by several weeks due to plane schedules interrupted by the insidious workings of the world-wide pandemic. There have been other delays too, but all logistical arrangements have led up to this moment. Now the team must make the impossibly difficult call as to whether this amber light should flick to green and the translocation initiate, or whether the red light should burn.

It’s 3 p.m., the carefully predetermined moment to begin darting so that darkness does not prove an obstacle to the team. Three teams are assembled,  each with an allocated dart-man to expedite getting all animals tranquillised and loaded as quickly as possible. The anxiety is palpable. The call is made: proceed as planned using the cool of night to travel the 300 km to Durban. The extra hours on the airstrip apron to process and ready the crates may in fact prove fortuitous.

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There is a tangible hum as the team leaders give the thumbs up – is it excited voices or an actual electric current pulsing through veins? Everyone has been meticulously briefed. The largest single translocation of rhinos in one go, is now underway.

The rumble of trucks

It’s 9.30 p.m. when the trucks eventually exit the Phinda gates. It has taken six and a half hours to dart each rhino, spray it for parasite loads, administer defensive treatments for the Tsetse flies they will encounter in Akagera, insert the CITES microchips, visibly number the animal on its flanks, and then walk it into its pre-numbered and colour-coded crate, custom built for the particular size-class of the animal. All 30 crates had to be loaded via trusty truck cranes and secured onto the flatbed trucks. The three teams – identified by red, blue and green buffs – had each been allocated a camp of 10 rhino to process and load, the colours imperative to keeping the particular groups of animals together while travelling (the familiarity of smell and sound bring them some comfort in the long voyage) and so that they can all be released together, just as they were captured together initially.

The squeaks of vocalising rhinos

It is 3 a.m. when the security-escorted convoy pulls up outside the cargo terminal in Durban, capture staff a little blurry-eyed but still laser focussed. At 5 a.m. the offloading begins to the sound of crates rattling impatiently and rhinos squealing in their whale-like tones as sedatives wear off.

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The vets jump into action and attend to every passenger’s needs, topping up meds and righting animals that have “turtled” onto their sides. A little breakfast for the VIPs goes a long way to settling their nerves. Individual crates are wrapped with packaging that will prevent urine and dung spilling in the aircraft, and they are secured onto the loading palettes that will articulate with tracks in the cargo plane, when it eventually arrives.

The metallic grate of metal

The plane is still later than expected but the gaping entrance to the Boeing 747 hold is soon a conveyor of large pre-wrapped boxes moving up and in and along, constantly monitored by the team of six specialists (two vets, two conservation managers and two game capture experts) that will fly with them.

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The occasional squeak as rhinos “verbalise their opinions” of all the movement after a day of waiting quietly in the shade of the cargo buildings, is a reminder that this cargo is indeed living and precious. These are not just boxes being loaded onto a plane, these are the origins of a new generation for the species. The clock continues to tick and watches are fervently watched as final cross-checks are done and logistical hiccups are weathered.

The zoom of a plane taking off

By the time the plane races headlong down the runway, red tail lights flashing their goodbyes, it is 24 hours since the trucks departed Phinda and 30 hours since the first dart whooshed from the nozzle of its dart gun. The flight to Kigali and road transfer from there will take the overall travelling time to just on 40 hours in the end.

The jarring and judders of a long journey
The trill of triumph

Akagera National Park is a symbol of hope in Rwanda, an exciting beacon of what is possible when communities and conservation connect meaningfully. Twenty years ago, it was a depleted landscape, overridden with cattle. But Akagera, like &Beyond Phinda, has come full circle. The partnership between African Parks and the Rwanda Development Board has seen Akagera rise to a place where it can boast at being Central Africa’s largest protected wetland and the last refuge for savanna-adapted species in Rwanda, making it a coveted wildlife destination that receives 50 000 tourists a year (50% of which are Rwandan). Lions translocated from &Beyond Phinda in 2015 contributed to the species restoration of this reserve which is now a viable income-generating park (in fact 90% self-financing) and even though 2020 saw a 68% reduction in visitors due to COVID-19, Akagera continues to provide for the 300 000 people living around its boundaries who benefit directly from its existence.

 

Cheers of exhilaration

In 2017, when 18 black rhinos were introduced to Akagera, people lined the streets to welcome them “home” after a decade of local extinction. This time it is handfuls of casual bystanders that wave the trucks by, due to a strict press embargo imposed for security reasons throughout the transfer, but the successful release of these 30 white rhino will be imminently celebrated – this is the proverbial “cherry on the top” for this thriving wildlife mecca that, paired with gorilla trekking, offers a highly compelling, national tourism product.

Sighs of relief

A collective sigh of relief is evident from the demeanor of the exhausted South African capture team, as well as their Rwandan counterparts (who have also been preparing for this moment for months), as the doors to the 30 crates – divided between north and south park-based bomas according to their groups – successively open, revealing the tentative grey forms of the animals one can only assume share the same relief to have their feet touch natural earth again. The rhinos will spend several weeks under close observation here during this vital period of acclimation until at last, the gates fling wide, and the rhinos can again roam free and wild, residents of a new land, founders of a new legacy.

Echoes from the past resonate into the future

The story of Phinda – land restored from pineapple farms into thriving and productive wildlife habitat under the shared custodianship of its ancestral owners – is the powerful story of what is possible when we put things back the way nature intended and give her a chance to thrive. This is a very intentional action that has required careful management and sustainable financing over three decades, and every guest that has made the choice to travel with us over the years, has underpinned our ability to create this impact and legacy. Staying true to our course on this journey of conservation – to our care of land, wildlife and people – has positioned Phinda, initially devoid of any rhinos, as an invaluable source population for the re-establishment of rhino and many other species; a gentle counterpoint to the bitter backdrop of these gentle giants continuing to fall at the hands of ruthless poachers across Africa.

And now, as the tones of the instruments that effected this great translocation feat quieten down, an indelible melody persists as a reminder of what is possible when we work together for the greater good. Imagine the possibilities in the next 30 years. 

Epilogue

Les Carlisle (&Beyond Group Conservation Manager – retired), Grant Tracy (Tracy and Du Plessis Game Capture) and Martin Rickelton (African Parks Regional Operations Manager – Anglophone Parks) have journeyed in a serendipitous circle with Phinda. All three of these dedicated conservationists had a role to play in the original introduction of rhino onto &Beyond Phinda.

Les, as the conservation manager driving the reintroduction of wildlife onto the reserve, had a young Martin working under him as the section manager of Phinda North (Martin later went on to build and manage &Beyond Forest Lodge). Grant Tracy, a young, independent game capture operator assisted with the original game translocations, including the rhino, and subsequently became a close associate of the reserve and has been moving animals in and out of Phinda for nearly 30 years.

All three were present to help move the 30 white rhino to Akagera National Park: Les as a veteran conservation manager and translocation expert, Martin in his capacity of Regional Operations Manager for African Parks – who pioneered the undertaking, and Grant bringing his expertise, team and equipment in support of Conservation Solutions for this historical translocation.

A youthful Martin Rickelton prepares a dart gun as part of the original wildlife introduction onto &Beyond Phinda.

Martin Rickelton smiles in anticipation of the kick-off of the 2021 rhino relocation to Akagera.

Always a smile as Les Carlisle works at shaping &Beyond Phinda in the nineties.

Les Carlisle and Grant Tracy take a moment to mark shared history during the 30 rhino translocation.

Capture photographs courtesy of African Parks (Howard Cleland; Gael Vande Weghe; Martin Meyer)
Historical photographs courtesy of Les Carlisle

 

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