Monday, June 16, 2014

Rhino Rescue!

 For the last few days we have had the amazing opportunity to participate in a rhino rescue in Kruger National Park, South Africa. One of the full time employees of the church here in Johannesburg has been involved with rhino conservation for many years and arranges with the experts for us to participate in the rescues. Rhinos are in real trouble worldwide because of the illegal demand for their horns, which are unfortunately the most expensive commodity in the world right now. Ground horn brings wildly high prices because some people, primarily Asians believe that the powder cures illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, strokes, convulsions and fevers.  South Africa is home to 83% of Africa’s rhinos and 73% of all wild rhinos worldwide but a population of 500,000 in the early twentieth century has shrunk to a point that, if poaching continues at the current rate, rhinos could be extinct in the near future.
A large number of the rhinos in South Africa are in Kruger National Park, which is an astounding 6.2 million acres, most of it delineated by natural borders such as rivers or mountain ranges. Because of the borders and the size, protecting the animals by patrol is difficult to impossible. Rhino rescues have been developed as a way to curtail poaching by marking the animal for monitoring and recording the DNA so that anyone caught poaching can be prosecuted to the fullest extent. Also, because poachers are learning that this is being done, poaching has decreased dramatically in the areas where rhinos are being marked in this way.
So far, there have been over 400 animals tagged and recorded, with a cost of about 3,000 US dollars per tagging. Government funding doesn’t cover the effort so groups are invited to participate, with their fees funding the rescue. LDS senior missionaries are perfect invitees because they capable and responsible and usually have extra income for adventures. Our group of about 20 stayed at Ndabushi, which is called a bush camp, but it had nice cottages. We were able to go on two game drives through the park where we observed lots and lots of birds and animals, which I will do a separate post on in the next couple of days, but I know our family is anxious to hear about the rhino rescue so I’ll first post about that most important part of our adventure.
After the rhino is shot with the cocktail that anesthetizes him, he will run for about eight minutes, so the rescue has to take place in the cool part of the year and in the early morning. We were up and ready to go by 6 a.m.

The trucks were open sided--we were in the back in the high seats. The truck parked fairly close to the rhino just in case we had to make a mad dash for it should the rhino wake up. In this case, we had to be especially watchful because mama was waiting nearby.

Before the rescue began, the veterinarian and the park ranger thoroughly explained what would happen and assigned roles. Here he is talking about the rope that might need to be thrown to catch a hind leg should the rhino not go down as planned.
And here is the shot needle that would inject the medication which included a couple of kinds of tranquilizer and long lasting antibiotic that would guard against possible infection. In the back of the needle assembly is a cartridge that fires when the needle hits the animal. This ensures that the medication penetrates the possibly two inches of tough hide. 
This is the gun that they used to shoot the medication and the person who will shoot it. He is the foremost authority on rhino rescue.
The helicopter arrived just after the sun came up and the vet boarded to go to find a rhino to rescue and then try to heard the animal toward us. The helicopter flying overhead and the noise of the rotors probably scares them rhino, but a loud whooping horn also drives him. If the rhino doesn't come to us, we would leave in the trucks to go to where it is.
After several minutes, a young rhino, approximately three years old came running out of the bushes to where we were waiting in the truck in a clearing. He took a look at the truck and decided that was not a safe way to run so he went back into the bush and ran out again three or four times. The pilot was trying to drive him onto the clear ground, but the medication took effect in the brush. We drove into the brush a short distance and waited for the signal to begin the rescue. We might have waited a little while longer than usual and were especially cautious because the three year old's mother was not eager to be separated from her baby. The helicopter stayed busy keeping the adult away while we worked.
 Our rhino is a small male, but still weighs approximately a ton. They are happy to rescue young ones because the hope is that the tagging will ensure them a long life which should be up to 55 years. The first task was putting the blanket over his eyes. This keeps out visual stimulation and also guards against eye damage since their eyes remain open during the entire procedure.
One of the participants had the job of monitoring breathing. The amount and type of anesthesia has been perfected through the times they have done the rescues. They have found that rhinos take surprisingly small amounts to react, but there is always the possibility of overdose in which case an antidote is closely at hand. The guy with the responsibility of monitoring breathing was an orthodontist so was well acquainted with anesthesia.
In order to maintain proper breathing and avoid circulatory problems, the animal has to be positioned with the legs crossed and underneath. That also prevents him from turning on his side when people are working on him. It took the strength of as many as could fit around this little guy to get him in position. I have no idea how they would correct a bad position in a fully grown rhino.
There were three young veterinary students present who were doing a rotation in exotic animals. One of them kept track of his pulse.
Someone had the job of recording all of the vital statistics and measurements. This information will be kept in a data base in order to monitor the animal through his lifetime.
The vet has marked his ears for the notching. They explained the notching pattern but I lost track. On two ears with three possible notches on each, I think they can eventually distinguish almost a thousand rhinos. You can also see the hi-tech rhino earplugs with are rolled up socks. That was another person's job--to get the socks in at the beginning of the process.
 This lady's job was pulling out some of the tail hairs so that DNA could be extracted and recorded. It was surprisingly hard to pull out rhino tail hair so that the follicles would still be intact which is necessary for the sampling.
Elder Davie got to have the cool job of actually drilling a hole into each of the two horns. In these two holes, microchips are inserted and then hidden so that if the horns are poached, the origins can be easily traced and those in possession of the horns be prosecuted. The hard tissue that comes out with the drill is also saved for DNA identification. It seemed to be close to the consistency of plastic.
After the chips are inserted into the horns, a wooden peg with glue and driven into each hole. It is then broken off and smoothed and dirt rubbed into it so that the place the chip is hidden isn't detectable. A second set of chips is inserted behind each ear.
 You can't really see me back there, but I am there doing my job which was putting the ointment into the eyes of the rhino just before he is ready to wake up. Of course I am cautioned not to touch the eye but to just squirt the ointment on the bottom eye lid. This moistens the eye but probably also contains antibiotic in case any contaminants have been introduced. His eyes were like horse's eyes but small.
Here's our boy recovering from his encounter with humans. He was very shaky and confused for a moment or two, but then hurried off to find his mom and tell her on us I'm sure. Each of the rescue groups choose a name for the rhino they have rescued. A couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on the trip had the honor of naming and chose the name Ammon. They named him for the place in Idaho where they lived, but Ammon is a perfect name for him. In the Book of Mormon, the young men named Ammonites after Ammon were great and valiant young warriors who gave the credit for their teaching to their mothers. The organizer of our rescue said that he had full confidence that Ammon would do well because his mother was so watchful and so protective of her calf. We hope that when our grandchildren visit Kruger Park one day in the future that there will still be rhinos and that Ammon will be among them.
Here is a chart showing the sobering statistics of what is happening to the rhinos because of unfounded belief is the medicinal benefit of their horns. We saw a number of pictures of rhinos who had been poached. The poacher usually kills them, but sometimes they anesthetize them and then cut the horns off leaving a horribly disfigured rhino. Hopefully efforts like this will start the graph on a downward trend.

1 comment:

  1. This is awesome you guys! Did you do just one rhino? Very fun, truly the experience of a lifetime.