The perilous 1,000-mile journey to save Africa’s endangered black rhinos
28 October 2022
THE PLANNING | The long-distance translocation of 19 white rhino had none of the seamless ease of an African animal migration, but rather years of painstaking planning and decision-making, with ample investments from a diverse group of organisations. Key to success has been a powerful partnership between Exxaro Resources, Peace Parks Foundation and Mozambique’s National Administration for Conservation Areas (ANAC), alongside the Governments of Mozambique and South Africa. Meetings, recces and contingency plans came thick and fast until everyone – rhinos included – were ready to roll. Many leaps of faith were yet to come…
THE HERD | In Manketti Game Reserve, South Africa, the resident rhino were monitored and decisions made on which of them were in a suitable condition to travel all the way to Mozambique, where they would become a remarkable founder population in Zinave National Park. As a keystone species, the incoming herd will help in restoring their own habitat and, in doing so, rebuild entire ecosystems for the benefit of many species in Zinave. Great care was taken in the planning to keep family and social groups together in the move, and to exclude cows with very young calves.
THE BOMAS | The construction of sturdy holding pens, otherwise known as ‘bomas’, was the first major prepping step on the ground. The rhino wouldn’t be rushed out of their home territory until they’d transitioned through this special holding space. On the Mozambique side, similar bomas were constructed to accommodate the rhino at every stage of the journey.
THE CONSTRUCTION | The boma team worked tirelessly to piece the construction puzzle together, a significant task and expense in itself. Plenty of effort, sweat, poles, holes and fortified panels were needed to get it just right. To accommodate the different temperaments, design specs changed with the species – steel bomas were built for the feistier black rhino, and plastic sail bomas for the white rhino.
THE EYES IN THE SKY | Capture Day finally arrived. From the air – the only possible vantage point in expansive bush – game capture pilot and vet found the first cohort of rhino to be darted. Of these three, they first set their sights (literally, with a tranquiliser gun) on a big bull. Emotions ran high amongst the whole team, knowing that every shot and minute was critical.
THE SURFACE-TO-AIR SQUAD | Whilst the ‘take-down’ was underway from the helicopter, a fixed-wing aircraft held visuals on the next targets, to keep up the tempo of the operation. Below, trucks coordinated closely and constantly to reach the tranquilised rhino as swiftly as possible. The teams next on the scene were the ground crew: highly skilled, mightily strong and mostly fearless! Wildlife veterinarians, rangers, project managers and even CEOs – it was all hands on deck.
THE GROUNDWORK | Major safety measures were put in place for the benefit of both rhino and human. The non-negotiables: every animal needed ropes on their back legs and around their necks and horns to secure and support them whilst sedated, then to hold them steady as they came round. Sensory calming was crucial too – blindfolds and ear plugs were gently fitted, helping to reduce stress and struggles.
THE VET TECH | Horn measurements and blood tests took place within a small sample group. Conspicuous notches in certain positions around the ear were made so that each animal could be identified at a distance out in the field; knowing who’s who, and whereabouts, was extremely important to make regular ‘roll calls’ possible, and to match individuals to their crates and their kin. Family clans existing within the bigger group of nineteen would matter as much in their new home as they did here.
THE WAKE-UP | The dozing rhinos were given a ‘reversal shot’ – the antidote which made shifting several leathery tons possible. There are many procedural hoops wildlife vets must jump through, an intense pressure to keep the rhino alive and healthy and the ever-present matter of their own safety in the process.
THE STAND-UP | Let sleeping rhinos lie? Not if you wanted to stand any chance of getting them in a crate! Here, seven heavyweight team members had to prop and push this vast bull to get him on his feet, with the vet at the helm. As the rhino woke and stood up, constant monitoring and vigilance was called for. You really wouldn’t have wanted your rhino going from zero to sixty in five seconds…
THE TUG-OF-WAR | There isn’t a great deal to add in describing this challenge. The team seemed to grow in size at every stage of the operation, which is understandable if you can imagine guiding a 3-5 ton animal across the bush from its capture to the crate which awaits.
THE CRATING | This was the final push – for now. The big bull, first to be captured, entered his crate, custom-built to accommodate his size and strength. After successfully loading him, the team went on to capture another eighteen rhinos over a period of four days. Much stamina, determination and good faith was called on to complete the crating safely. On-site spirits remained almost tirelessly high, testament to some amazingly positive mindsets and passionate hearts.
THE BIG LIFT | A crane, mounted on just one of a fleet of flat-bed trucks, carefully put each crate in place. From here, the trucks shuttled the nineteen rhino from deep in the bush to the bespoke bomas. And so it was time to move on to pastures new, destined to find – and create – a new kind of balance there. They were now officially on the move, albeit step by step by step, by step.
THE FIRST LET LOOSE | Always keep a close eye on an awoken, wary rhino. Their release into the bomas in Manketti marked a six-week stopover designed to help them to get through the initial capture ‘stress dip’, to adjust to handling and to be monitored closely: they needed to be well fed, healthy and in peak condition to take on the long journey to Mozambique. Special care was taken to keep family members together to minimise separation anxiety.
THE BOMA CARE | Jen Conaghan came with an incredibly special kind of rhino care: monitoring and nurturing, anticipating and reassuring – all in a day’s work. Seeing them eat and drink were vital signs of healthy adjustment; this meant that, as the remaining sedatives left their bodies, their gastrointestinal tracts were doing their job. Jen made sure that their social groupings and comfort around people were as they had been. Already, they were clearly earthing themselves to new ground.
THE D-DAY | This morning marked Departure Day, and the last steps on South African soil for the precious cargo; there was a fleeting moment for goodbyes. Trucks and crates in position outside of the fence, the rhino waited warily whilst the vets prepared to sedate all nineteen of them, all over again. This time, capture was entirely ground based within the much less challenging confines of the bomas, and a lower, slower-releasing dose of tranquiliser used in order to keep the rhinos sleepily on their feet, not immobilised on their bellies.
THE PRE-LOAD | Every crate had already been carefully marked with the number and name of the rhino that would fit perfectly, by design, into it. Each rhino’s CITES permits and transport paperwork, plus their medication, were pre-packaged to accompany their crate – a process meticulously organised to the very last detail. Additional vet checks were run before loading them for the first stretch of their long transfrontier journey. Finally, sensors were fitted: part of a strict set of security measures to safeguard the rhino from the moment that they would arrive in Zinave National Park.
THE SLEEP-WALK | Checks and procedures complete, the rhino were ‘walked out’ – which was an all-hands-on-herbivore task! Once again, the capable hands came from all sides – at least one team per special charge, each of which needed to be carefully led through the gates and into their specifically designed crates. This took just under four hours for all nineteen rhino: an epic, sweaty achievement for all.
THE IN-CRATE CARE | Once crated, the vets assessed and passed each rhino as ‘travel safe’. They’d been given a longer lasting sedative for the extended trip to keep them chilled on the road. And so.. they were good to go.
THE FIRST LEG | The twenty-four hour starting stretch of their sixty hour journey began, slowly and steadily, to South Africa’s border with Mozambique, and then eastwards on to Maputo National Park. Given this pioneering rhino road-transfer, the longest ever, safety was crucial to build into the care plan and layover logistics, and thus security forces were never far from the rhinos’ sides, every day and all the way.
THE ‘MNAP’ STOP | Happy to reach their halfway house in Maputo National Park, this time accommodation was far more fleeting! As each rhino emerged, they were touching down in their new homeland. With water and a variety of food, they recovered here for fourty-eight hours. A translocation stopover of this kind was also a first: never before had anyone made use of a halfway house to break a long journey and ensure the well-being of the animals. It worked extremely well, providing a new methodology for moving rhino (and other species) across the continent, to allow for the restocking of remote protected areas previously inaccessible for translocations of this nature.
THE RE-LOAD | In the holding pens and under observation, a decision was only made to take them on the rest of the journey once the vets cleared them as being well fed and rested. With the green light given, the team went through the loading motions for the last time on this journey: darting, manoeuvring and crating. Wildlife vets are adept at this, but the edge never wears off completely.
THE LONG HAUL | The rhino travelled in a four-truck convoy; police as well as security teams from both Maputo and Zinave National Park worked tirelessly alongside the vets, drivers and support crews to ensure a safe trip for all. They needed to factor in stops – on madly busy roads, barely-there roads and in darkness – to check on the rhino and administer small top-ups of sedative if signs of stressed restlessness were showing.
THE HOME STRETCH… & FINAL TEST | Imagine getting this far, only to break an axel, puncture a tyre or get your rhino stuck in the mud? It took over thirty hours to make their way to Zinave National Park; thankfully, no disasters struck but the greatest travel challenge was saved for the very end. Navigating bush tracks like this with such cumbersome trucks and precious cargo meant summoning every remaining shred of stamina and concentration. Rural Africa’s roads aren’t for sissies.
THE NEW REALITY | Zinave National Park had been preparing excitedly for this moment for many months: putting in place infrastructure, upgrading security systems and employing an additional thirty-four specially trained rangers. Zinave has an impressively low poaching record, but threats remain a reality, so maximising skills and patrol hours is vital.
THE GOLD | It had been two full years of planning – through the close collaboration of Peace Parks, ANAC and Exxaro in a project that also united the governments and joint conservation interests of two countries, and brought together a world-class team of translocation, veterinary and conservation experts. As the first crates were lifted through the air, the lucky arc of a rainbow looped over the four-legged treasure and those who had carefully carried it so far. Everyone had been waiting for this golden moment.
THE FIRST STEPS | Into the home boma a horn emerges, then a second, and beneath it that lovable and unmistakably square lip; the long head, wide-set ears, and beginnings of the distinctive neck hump. These were most definitely not black rhino (their turn is coming…)! With the first set of toes came the momentous steps of a greatly missed, iconic creature. Mozambique knows rhino well, but Zinave, after losing the last of this species 40 years ago, had just become the only national park in Mozambique with rhino.
THE EMOTION | It’s near impossible to describe the feelings filling the team as they witnessed the rhino stepping onto this land. The scene and the senses were surreal: an overwhelming relief, a pay-off of faith, hope and dedication, and a reminder of just how much this dream means. By their nature, transfrontier visions are never modest in size, and making them actually happen is a mammoth mission. But it’s not the scale or graft of the task being dwelt on by everyone at this moment – it’s the growing benefits now to be bestowed on Zinave’s great ecosystems thanks to the way that the rhino can engineer change.
THE BIGGER WINS | White rhino fulfil greatly underrated roles in an ecosystem, distinct to the black rhino but equally vital. As they graze and fertilise grasslands, other species thrive in the new conditions; biodiversity blooms. Now, as Mozambique’s only Big Five park and a great tourist draw, a newly flourishing landscape can grow tourism traction even more. In turn, this brings incomes and enterprises to local communities: a valuable stake in nature. Growing populations will also allow new founder herds to be created in other viable and safe parks, thereby contributing to the larger vision of rebuilding rhino numbers throughout the region. Over time, the ripple effect of conservation successes can spread prosperity further, across southern Africa’s great areas and frontiers.
THE NEW BABY | As if to prove a point – that nature knows best, and that the rhino are in their happy place – a new calf arrives in the park just 2 weeks after the herd lands. She and her mother are both relaxed and healthy, and together they are hopeful totems of good fortune and longevity here.