Written by: Dereck Joubert
As Beverly and I drove towards Duba Plains Camp, my mind toyed with the fact that for some rhinos this would quite literally be a blood moon. The red full moon was setting before dawn as we mobilised, and somewhere in South Africa poachers were washing their hands after a hard night’s work, as is the case now during most full moons.
This was most certainly the case in the second week of September when a friend of mine, Markus Jenson, who owns land in South Africa, contacted me about his rhinos. We’d been debating whether he should sell his rhinos and fund some anti-poaching efforts on his land or give them to us. A few days after our discussion he called me and said that the night before, which was a wonderful full moon, he’d heard gunshots. Four of his rhinos were dead.
I’ve always loved the full moon. It connects us to loved ones around the world, as we look up at the sky and know that they may be watching the moon at the same time. Recently, however, I’ve come to loathe it.
We mobilised and within days the Rhinos Without Borders team had captured his remaining rhinos and moved them to a safe house in South Africa.
Now we were heading out to the airfield at dawn to help unload the first batch of four of the 15 that we had rescued.
By 8.30am the dawn had long burned away under 40ºC heat. The government forklift was no match for these hefty Limpopo bull rhinos and it kept tipping forward. We needed a counter-balance. And with that, it took about 10 men to hang off its back-end to restore its balance, and finally load the first four rhinos.
For those of you lucky enough not to have been in operations in the military you may have missed the thrill of hearing the tell-tale sound of four heavy-duty Lockheed engines grinding through the air as an Air Force C-130 descends – almost like a pregnant rhino itself – trailing vapour and crabbing against the crosswind. There was no mistaking the thrill today though. The Botswana Defense Force plane roared above us, as soldiers raced to remove the windsock before the final landing snapped it in half.
I lost the flying beast through my viewfinder as it turned and stopped. I ran up to its underbelly just as the ramp came down and the first crate labelled “Rhinos Without Borders – Fragile” was revealed!
It had been a demanding 24 hours – we’d had to change the location of the release because security forces were worried about our original destination. That threw everything to the wayside, all arrangements made over months had to be revisited on the fly. Moving a task force of 40 people at the last moment had us all running, but not a single crew member blinked. All our eyes were on the prize.
All went smoothly but for one stage. We had a mother and young calf together in their moving pen headed for their destination when the government driver got properly stuck, and that was that. Conditions were tough at 45ºC heat, and we had to make the quick and tough decision to release the mother and small calf immediately. Usually we would not have even moved a calf of this size, but remember these were captured and moved under emergency intervention to save them from poaching.
We released both from the bogged down truck thinking that they would go off together, but the mother went one way and the calf the other. After a few hours we decided to recapture them. To do this we had to fly in a Botswana vet with drugs and start all over again. We secured the baby relatively quickly and pumped her full of six litres of hydrating fluids, but by nightfall the mother was still not found and we retreated to bed, exhausted and a little despondent knowing that these poor animals have no idea why we are doing this to them. It’s impossible for them to know that the stress of having their world turned upside down is for their own good.
At dawn we were rested and ready to fix the problem. After three hours of helicopter searching, we found the mother 8km away from the release site! But that is when we discovered that the helicopter pilots were not insured to dart from the helicopter. I directed the convoy to land nearby and dropped the vet with Poster, our monitoring officer. By now it was nearly midday again and hot. Finally we managed to get a dart into the mother and load her up and by 4.30pm release her into the pens. She was exhausted. We watered her down, literally soaking her, and as Jason hosed her down, something amazing happened. She lay down and rolled over on her back, like a large Labrador dog, kicking her legs and scratching her back in the quickly forming mud.
Just a few minutes later, we opened the sliding gate and the calf was standing there waiting for her, whining like a small whale. That is when the second amazing thing happened – the mother nuzzled her calf, paced and then stretched out on her side to let the youngster suckle.
We fed them, and once they were stabilised after three days, we opened the gates and the mother and calf walked free together.
General Patton once said something like: I’ve never known a battle go according to plan, but I’ve never known a battle without a plan to go well either. This one tested us all.
We’ve now moved a total of 25 rhinos and if we thought the first batch was a tester, this one really made us think on our feet. I still keep finding bruises and cuts that I don’t even remember receiving.
I wanted to share this with you because you are the ones that have made this all happen. Without your donations and support, our conservation would still just be a conversation (as a friend of mine said). With the generosity of people around the world, we are hoping to be able to get to the halfway point of our mission by the end of 2016 and complete it in 2017.
While I always had the notion that we would be saving these rhinos, what has evolved is that we are now even more focused on actually ‘saving’ rhinos from populations under immediate threat. That is exactly what the project is all about.
One of the main responsibilities is that we need to be ready for ‘that call.’ And I am worried about getting the call and not being able to respond right away because that call means that if we don’t move immediately, we will be turning our backs while rhinos get shot on each full moon.
Inside sources are now estimating that, as of November 2015, we have reached a total of 1,023 rhinos killed this year. This means that instead of one rhino killed every 7.6 hours, one rhino is now being killed every 7.1 hours. Insiders think that we will easily reach 1,500 kills this year and that takes it closer to one every 5 hours. Poaching is escalating and serious scientists are no longer debating the potential extinction, but are now predicting when that will happen.
As our project develops, we understand that to distribute rhinos evenly, rather than cluster them, we are going to have to support the anti-poaching unit as well. We are looking into expert advice on how to do that, with a private sector/government partnership. I will update you with what our options are as they develop.
Lastly there are another 16 rhinos that we think are under threat in the Limpopo area, and we are in talks to also move these early next year.
Thank you all for being a part of a project that is playing a role in saving these two rhino species. It is a tangible and measurable effort, and we will keep on sourcing and moving rhinos so that we can meet that 100 rhino target. Show your support here.