Written by: Em Gatland
There aren’t many people who get to witness a rhino lift. I had no idea what I was in for joining the the game capture team at Imfolozi to document how it all happens.
The annual air lift done at Imfolozi involves the capture and relocation of rhino to other parks to reduce the chance of inbreeding, thus resulting in stronger bloodlines, which is ultimately beneficial for the future of the species. This year there were 30 rhino being darted and airlifted.
Megan Lategan from Wildlife Act describes the operation in more detail. “Game capture and relocation is done for the benefit of the species and to ensure the strength of future bloodlines. It is a complex procedure and is only done when absolutely necessary. Thankfully the techniques used for rhino capture and relocation have significantly improved in recent years, gone are the days of large drug doses and corralling a dazed animal into a convenient location. As strange as it may seem airlifts are the best way to move these massive creatures, it allows them to be captured from any location; the rhino spends less time under anaesthetic and ultimately endures less stress from the procedure. The significant improvement in this area has led to a marked increase in the success of relocating white rhino.”
The rhino lift procedure is gentle on the darted rhino as it shortens the time the animal is kept drugged and respiration is not compromised and it avoids the need to travel over bumpy roads in a crate, which is how a rhino was transported in the past.
The rhinos are airlifted using an old Vietnam Huey, which in itself is an adventure. They are lifted roughly 500 – 1000 meters into the air, suspended by their ankles. There is a crew of 3 vets, 3 pilots, roughly 5 ground staff and a game capture manger. What stood out the most to me is how precise this operation is; every single man has an invaluable role to play.
Wildlife Act says, “This technique was first used on other species such as large antelope and buffalo, and proved to to be a very successful way to transport larger animals, not only by air but from the ground into a transport crate using a crane device. Since then it has been trialed and tested extensively with rhino, which included very thorough testing during the the entire process, such as monitoring blood pressure, oxygen levels, heart rate, and of course strain placed on limbs and joints.
All four legs (and with white rhino the head) are used during the lift, this helps spread the weight evenly. From all the tests no negative impact, strains or injury has been recorded. The result is an incredibly safe and effective technique, far better (in most situations) than the traditional methods, which are not only time consuming but put extra stress on the animal, increasing the risk of injury.”