Staying at the deep end of the gene pool

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Phinda sometimes sends animals to other reserves, but never really said why. 

It’s mostly to help with genetic diversity. Since Phinda is fenced in, new animals can only arrive with human intervention (except leopard, hyenas and wild dogs, they just ignore the fences). So in order to prevent inbreeding, it’s common for managed reserves to swap out their breeding males. They prefer to keep the females since that means they get to keep the offspring, like these super cute lion cubs hiding in the grass:

So for example, Phinda is sending those 2 male cheetahs that we darted and collared to another reserve. After they have left, a third reserve is sending 2 male cheetahs to Phinda to take their place. 

Population control is another reason to send animals elsewhere. For example, Phinda can support no more than 3 prides of lions. So those 2 males that we darted on my first day won’t be back filled. 

Another reason is to increase the range of a species. This is especially true for rhino. Phinda is part of a couple of programs that reintroduce rhino to other areas of Africa where they were previously hunted out. It’s pretty exciting to help (hopefully) bring a species back to where it used to be! Check out this baby rhino, just 4 months old. 

A rhino by any other name

I noticed a term that I didn’t recognise being used on the radio so I asked Meg about it. Turns out it’s bad etiquette to say “rhino” on the radio, kinda like how you shouldn’t say “MacBeth” in a theatre. While the MacBeth taboo is based on superstition, the rhino taboo is in case poachers are listening. 

With most of the big animals, if you see something you say something: If you see a lion, you call it in in case someone wants to join you at the sighting. We don’t want to give poachers any info on where rhino can typically be found, so typically rhinos are never called in. The exception is if someone is looking specifically for rhino, for example if it’s a guest’s last day and they haven’t seen any yet, or if my team needs assistance locating a particular rhino. That’s when we use the code words. I’d tell what they are, but then I’d have to dehorn you. 

Poaching is a huge concern. 3 rhino a day are lost to poaching in South Africa. Phinda dehorns its rhinos in an effort to deter poachers. Usually if I am taking a picture of a rhino it’s about to be dehorned. 

Some reserves ask that nobody post pics of their rhino at all on social media, but Phinda doesn’t have that restriction since they are well known for their rhinos already. I asked Cilla what some of the other anti-poaching restrictions are. Guests and rangers are not allowed to take cell phones on drives (our team is exempt from that). If a reserve is transporting a rhino elsewhere, it shouldn’t be discussed on social media so that poachers can’t intercept them en route (duly noted). If a reserve has rhino in an enclosure (typical when they are being introduced to new location), that should never be publicized since they are sitting ducks. It all makes sense when you stop to think about it, but it’s not the sort of thing most people think about. 

Breaking out the big tools

Mike the vet is back, this time with a helicopter and a crane. Guess what animal we worked with today?

If you guessed black rhino, give yourself a hand. 2 male black rhinos are now on their way to another reserve thanks to a huge group effort today.

 Here’s how it went down: Meg and Cilla took off in a helicopter to locate BRM 151 and 156. Once they spotted the rhinos, they came back to pick up Mike and his trusty dart gun.  The rest of us drove out to a nearby open patch. The helicopter herded the rhino nearby and Mike took his shot. 

The goal is to get the rhino down in an open area near the vehicles, but perhaps not this close. Dale just managed to get his door closed before the rhino came by. 

Rhinos will keep going even when darted, so you have to get a brake line around one of their back feet in order to stop them. We left that to the pros. 

Once the rhino was down, we blindfolded it, inserted ears plugs, and also prepped it for dehorning. You can see the ear notches on BRM 156 clearly in this pic:

Once the rhino was prepped, Simon added a radio foot collar, Cilla took blood from the ear, and Meg took hair from the tail for DNA samples. Yours truly recorded the darting on the Trimble.

It’s important to keep darted animals cool. For rhinos, we used water and a leaf blower. 

Next was the dehorning. Mike used a chain saw to remove the horn and then smoothed it with some sort of buffing tool. Rhinos are dehorned in an attempt to deter poachers. 

 Then it was time to get the rhino into its crate. At around 1,200 kg these guys are a bit too heavy to carry, so it’s a combination of pulling with a rope and prodding with a cattle prod to get the rhino back on its feet and into the crate. 

Once the rhino is in its crate, the crane loads it on the truck and job done!

Full moon

The moon looks lovely, but it also means that the poachers will be out since it’s easier to hunt rhino. 

There’s debate going on as to whether de-horning rhino is worth the cost and impact to the animal. According to Meg, the conservationist we usually go on drives with, reserves that do de-horn see a reduction in poaching but that is offset by increases at other reserves. So, across SA de-horning hasn’t made a noticeable impact. 

Day 2, am: rhinos

This morning we had a late start, 6:30 am. There were a couple of black rhino spotted that needed to be identified. 

Turns out it was female 7, her female adolescent 161 (about 4 years old), and 7’s male calf which we think was 67 (about 2 years old).

We record spottings like these both electronically and on paper, making note of which animals we saw, where they were, and what they were doing. 

Rhinos are identified by (manmade) ear notches. The notches are in certain positions and each position is assigned a number which you add up to get that rhinos id. So rhino 7 just has one notch and it’s in the 7 position. Rhino 161 has 3 notches that add up to 161. I’m going to have to get better at math…

Today’s fun fact: there are 2 types of rhino, black and white. The names have nothing to do with the animals’ colors. White rhinos were originally called wide rhinos since they have wide mouths, but English-speaking settlers misheard it as “white”. Black rhinos were simply called that to differentiate them from the white ones.