- Zimbabwe is home to the world’s fourth largest black rhino population after South Africa, Namibia and Kenya.
- Author Ed Warner travels there frequently to volunteer with the International Rhino Foundation’s Zimbabwe Lowveld Rhino Program, which conducts monitoring and anti-poaching efforts aimed at treating, rehabilitating, and translocating rhinos as needed.
- Here we publish Warner’s diary of six days in the bush supporting the team’s data collection and anti-poaching efforts.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
In mid-2017, Ed Warner visited Zimbabwe, which has the world’s largest black rhino population after South Africa, Namibia and Kenya, to volunteer for the International Rhino Foundation (IRF)’s Zimbabwe Lowveld Rhino Program.
Warner has volunteered for them doing “rhino ops” as he calls it several times, and chronicled it in a 2016 book “Running with Rhinos.” He has also since become a donor to the program.
Traveling with IRF’s Raoul du Toit (a 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize winner) and a number of others, Warner was part of a team working to track, study, and protect the rhinos living within conserved lands, by cataloguing calves (via ear notching and taking DNA and blood samples), RFID implanting, and de-horning (horns removed from rhinos by this team to reduce poaching risk are delivered to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority for safe storage).
Mongabay presents here his diary from those six days for the interest of readers who may be curious to know what this experience is like. – The Editors
Rhino Ops with the Zimbabwe Lowveld Rhino Program
Raoul played his usual trick of working like someone possessed until the last moment of time. When we finally got to Charles Prince Airport he had made up his mind to fill up the Cessna 206 owned by the Lowveld Rhino Trust because it was going to be used, while we were gone, by our friend Hugo of the Frankfurt Zoo. By the time we took off, it was almost 3:45 p.m. with sundown coming at 5:30. “Raoul, what is our flight time today?” I enquired.
“An hour and forty-five minutes.” Math is one of my specialties. We were going to land at dusk. Ok. Five minutes into the flight, over the headphones, Raoul informed me, “Ed, we have a ‘slight’ headwind.” Uh huh. We landed at Devuli Ranch with about 1 minute of daylight left. It really wasn’t that close. We had to do a high-speed flyover of the dirt strip to make sure that a herd of wildebeests weren’t grazing on the runway. It’s completely usual. Don’t want to land amongst a passel of ungulates. Bad for the paint job. I spotted a herd of giraffes on the fly around. As usual, they ignored the plane. Giraffes never look up. Why bother – they’re the tallest things around.
We got to the ranch and Bob, our helicopter pilot, and I, long friends of about three minutes, grabbed drinks and went out to the campfire. Ten minutes later, Raoul sat down, and said, “That was the army right behind us. They were suspicious of an airplane landing so late. I’ve patched it up.” With any luck we won’t receive ground fire as we’re trying to dart rhinos.
Devuli Ranch is a historic place. In the 1950’s the Rhodesian colonial government promoted the development of the semi-desert lowveld. The De La Rue family claimed 750,000 acres. Cattle ranching was not commercially successful, so they subdivided into 30,000 acre ‘ranchettes’ and sold most off. Cheshakwe Ranch, where we are staying, was their original headquarters. Years earlier, on a previous rhino operation, I pulled a novel from a shelf in De La Rue’s library to read. Somerset Maugham, “The Razor’s Edge,” signed on the fly by De La Rue. I’m ashamed to say, I kept it. I walked into the library. Virtually nothing left on the shelves. I’m not the only thief in town.
We got a late start today. A family, neighbors of the Conservancy, pitched up after breakfast with half their kids. Four boys from 6 to 16. Raoul invited them to get into position so they could see us work on a sedated rhino. Chap, Natasha, myself, and Bob the pilot all piled into the Robinson 44 with enough equipment to make leg amputations almost mandatory. I sit in the front seat next to the pilot. Under my feet is a chainsaw and two backpacks. I jam my right leg between the center control console and the chain saw. What to do with my left leg? And, how to buckle my shoulder harness, close the door and get my left foot in position as the helicopter is taking off? I figure it out, more or less.
My job changed about 7:30 this morning when Tasha showed me a drill, some small Ziploc bags and chemicals: “You are going to drill the horn for DNA samples.” Say what? A one-minute tutorial followed. “Drill the horn 5cm from the base at a straight angle. Don’t get near the living tissue, but get deep enough to get through the weathered outer horn.” I’d drilled oil wells, but not rhino horn. Time for a change!
“After each horn, dip the tip of the drill into this tube of chemical. Otherwise, the DNA will be contaminated on the next horn.” Then she thought a few seconds, rummaged around and handed me a special paint. “When we dehorn, I want you to paint this on the cut edge. It seals and protects the horn from infection.” Okey-dokey. “Go to the garage and get the toothbrush for the paint.” I had no idea where the garage was, but Tasha is intimidating. I went through the kitchen, around the corner toward the vehicles on the certain assumption that the garage would be in the vicinity of the trucks. I’m usually wrong in my assumptions, but this time, lo and behold, there was the garage and the toothbrush was in plain sight. Such small successes make me happy.
We finally took off, but the scouts were on the wrong cow and calf. We set the helicopter down on a creek bed, whilst a herd of about 100 Cape buffalo were drinking. They stomped off and left us in peace. The old buffalo bulls can be a real menace, but for once they behaved. We sat down above the creek on a sandy patch. That is, the three of them sat on clean sand, I sat on a kind of cocklebur and got several dozen burrs stuck in my butt. Fortunately, I realized my mistake before I got in the chopper and made a mess of the seat.
It was late morning by then so we flew back to camp. After lunch it became apparent that the scouts couldn’t find the rhinos Raoul wanted. We took the helicopter and joined the search with the spotter plane. Bob the pilot had a particular flying style, which included extremely tight-banking turns. Good thing I don’t get motion sickness. The rest of the day we recorded rhinos from their ear notches. Tasha handed me her notebook and pen that hardly worked. Chap photographed and called out the notch positions and I wrote the data down – when the damn pen ink flowed. I switched to a lead pencil. It was virtually out of lead. I cursed Tasha, and Chap handed me a pen that worked. We found around 20 white and black rhinos before the day was out. All had been ear notched, so the scouts will have to start over tomorrow working another area. Folks are starting to drink, so I’ll say goodnight.
An hour after our return, the helicopter having landed with about 3 ounces of petrol remaining, a pack of African painted dogs ran down an impala in the front yard of the ranch. This dog den was close to the fence line, but I’d already been informed that it was near impossible to approach, so we’d leave them alone. The African painted dog is the most social of the large African predators and a very intelligent animal. This pack had figured out that if they drove impala against the ranch’s barbed wire fence, hunting would be easier and take less time.
There we were, unpacking gear right around dusk when we heard a big racket outside. Chap, our vet, dropped everything and ran toward the noise. Naturally, I followed him. The impala had cracked its skull on a fence post and the painted dogs fled when Jesse’s dog went crazy. Chap grabbed the impala and ordered me to hold its head down. Chap cut its throat. I know it sounds awful, but it was the humane thing to do. We dragged it out into the field with the hopes that the dogs would return and eat the kill. My coveralls were decorated from my right shoulder to my right knee with a spray of arterial blood. Another baptism. At least Chap didn’t dip his thumb and make the sign of the cross on my forehead.
Rhino ops were very productive today. We darted and ear notched four black rhino calves. We also took notes on about 30 more that had identifying marks. Every day of operations the helicopter has to have a spot to set down in between flights. Today, it was a kope (sounds like copy), a granite nob of a hill with about 100 meters total rise. We landed on the flat top. There were three depressions, which in the rainy season would be little stone baths, two filled with lion shit and the last filled with genet shit. I asked whether it was likely that a leopard would live in a kope frequented by lions. “Oh sure, Ed, the leopard knows when to come out of its den.”
I took my first DNA sample today. With a little extra instruction from Natasha, I’m now an expert (maybe). I also painted the ass end of a rhino. We use yellow paint that lasts about two weeks. That way, we don’t dart the same animal twice by mistake.
Trish, the helicopter pilot’s wife, got a tutorial from our vet, Chap about the drug, which he mixes for each dart. The main ingredient, etorphine, or M99, is a semi-synthetic opioid of fantastic toxicity to humans, 20 micrograms on the pinprick of an open wound and you are dead in about 30 seconds from cardiac and respiratory arrest. Even a drop absorbed on intact skin and you pass out very quickly. He showed her the reversal drug he carries in a fanny pack. I asked about fentanyl, the opioid, which when added to heroin is killing Americans left and right. “Oh, Ed, etorphine is far more toxic than fentanyl.” I can’t tell you how often I have washed off the ooze leaking from a dart stuck in the butt of a rhino. And yet, the team knows the danger, so we are very careful where we place our hands. I’ve never seen anyone pitch over from etorphine poisoning.
Good news this morning. The wild dogs dragged off the impala carcass after dark. Bad news: A “guti” (cold front) came out of the south last night. Today started out gloomy, with wind, low dark gray clouds and drizzle. Cold too. Rhino ops began slowly. Scouts were not moving as fast under these weather conditions, so we finally went out after 11 a.m. to do some scouting from the air.
Two additional factors gummed things up farther. Raoul, in the spotter plane, made contact with a signal on the ground using a portable receiver. As it was not moving and the frequency corresponded to a receiver on a rhino, he called us in to investigate. We did not have a portable receiver in the helicopter, so Chap and I were dropped off and ran a search pattern across the savanna while Natasha and Bob went off to rendezvous with Raoul to get the one he had in the Husky. Chap and I split up so as to cover more ground. Walking through the bush alone, knowing that besides the ‘dangerous five’ (lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo and rhino) one might run into an Egyptian or spitting cobra, a Russell’s or other viper, or god forbid a black mamba, makes one think. I covered the ground carefully, looking not so much for a carcass, but for shell casings and porcupine quills. Porcupine quills? What have they to do with poaching? Nothing, except I always look for porcupine quills. Part of my “Africa” collections.
The helicopter landed and we set up the portable receiver. Chap started walking toward the signal. The three of us fanned out on both sides. After about ten minutes, he took the antenna off. We searched the ground carefully. Nothing. Then partly hidden under a log we found the collar and transmitter that had been fitted to an African painted dog. It had snapped off cleanly. It didn’t belong to the dog research group. In fact, we don’t know where it came from.
Off we went and landed atop our favorite kope for lunch. I stripped off my thermals because I got overheated on our walk about. At the end of lunch, a drizzle started, finally cooling me down. A radio call came in from the scouts. While following spoor, they saw the remains of a rhino. Off we went and met with the scouts, driving in a Land Cruiser pickup. Natasha took a hand-held GPS unit and followed it to ‘Sarah’, a 27 year-old black rhino cow that had been shot about eight months earlier based on the condition of the skeleton and her last sighting. Chap started counting bones and called out, “I’ve got three femurs.” Her two-month old calf had been killed in the same ambush. Sarah’s skull was mutilated by a saw when her horn was hacked off. We never found the skull of the calf, hard as we looked. Probably carried off by a hyena.
We finally got back to productive work. Ear-notched one black rhino calf and dehorned one large black rhino bull. We would have run out of gas on the way back to camp, so we stopped on a dirt road and rendezvoused with a truck carrying fuel. Twenty liters of gas later we were off. Raoul spotted a lone bull on the way back and so we diverted to get his number off his ear notches, an exercise which resembles a high-speed chase trying to get a license number off a drunk driver. Only, we were dodging trees all the while. We got back to camp with twice the fuel of the night before. Two minutes supply left, up from one minute, oh joy!
Cold and dark cloud cover, but not so low as yesterday. The guti is going and the clouds will start to burn off as the sun does its job. One of the safari camps has clients that would like to join us to see our work. We took off around 9:45 heading southeast to the area just north of the Turgwe River. We’re looking for a couple of black rhino bulls to dehorn and several cow and calf combos, to ear notch the calves.
We encountered a half dozen rhinos on the way and buzzed them until we got the ear notch numbers for identification. The helicopter set down at the intersection of two roads and we sat under an Acacia tortilis for shade. Finally, I laid on the ground and went out like a light.
The radio squawked with word of a cow and calf and off we went. The cow was darted, went down in a wide-open spot for a change and the helicopter picked up myself and Natasha, and put us down 20 meters from Chap and the calf. I took a DNA sample and off we went. Back to the Acacia for lunch and another nap.
The radio squawked again and off we went. This time we had a big black rhino bull to dehorn. Natasha and I were left behind for the darting, but right in the path of the rhino. Tasha said, “Ed, how about that tree?” pointing to a leadwood tree. I replied, “Hey Mom, don’t you think I’m capable of picking out my own tree?” I had found a leadwood with two trunks just the right distance apart for me to shove my boot in the crack and just about walk up the trunk.
Five minutes later we spotted the rhino coming toward us through the trees. Maybe he smelled us, but he circled around and disappeared over the brow of a ridge. Minutes later we had word he had gone down a draw and was in the river thicket. Natasha and I took off on a run, which turned out to be almost 2 km. Over ridges, around hillsides over rocky ground, but we got to the rhino in time to help with the dehorning. I took out my cellphone and put the clock app on stopwatch and called out respiration rate. Then I painted the ass end with yellow paint in the shape of a “T”. The rhino’s name was “Torch”, after his mother “Flame” or some nonsense like that. Chap got ready to reverse and Tasha and I ran to the chopper. He started up and waited.
Sure enough the rhino emerged from the river bottom only about 100 meters from us. We cranked up the revolutions, prepared to take off without Chap if necessary. The rhino trotted around and behind us. There was no malice in this big boy. He headed away. Chap ran for the chopper and we took off. All in a day’s work.
We returned to camp to refuel at two p.m. and didn’t go out again until four. The crew of four in the helicopter did all the scouting and flying for a change. After 30 minutes we picked up an adult black rhino bull that needed to be dehorned.
Instead of landing and dropping myself and Natasha we decided, overweight and all, we would just go right in and dart the beast. He was in thick thorn bush with tall trees every 100 or 200 meters. Not good country for darting. We followed him and pushed him to a more open area. High and at an angle, Chap made the most amazing shot, hitting the rhino between his cheeks right up against his spine. We followed him for 2 .5 minutes. He started to show signs of the drug. Another 2.5 minutes passed and Chap started making up another dart. Suddenly the big old bull started to stagger. Chap put the meds away. He kindly collapsed just 100 meters from a clearing we could use as a landing zone.
I started off early this morning, just after dawn, with Jessie of the African painted dog research group (African Wildlife Conservation Fund). We visited the “Nova” pack of 10 puppies and 14 adults. “Why ‘Nova’?” I asked.
“These dogs were a half dozen males that split off of the ‘Bedford’ pack. They roamed around for an entire season, traveling great distances until they had picked up a female from here and there. We got to calling them the ‘Casanovas.’ So, when they came back up north and settled here on Chishakwe, we shortened the name to ‘Nova.’”
The adults were just returning from the hunt as we pitched up. Wild dogs have wonderful coloration, patches of black, brown, rust and white. Dogs just off of a kill have a kind of magenta glow around their heads and shoulders from the fresh blood of the impala or kudu they had minutes earlier torn to shreds. Each adult as it returns is mobbed by the puppies, which lick their faces. They then regurgitate the chunks of meat that they had so recently swallowed.
I don’t see this as disgusting, it is in fact brilliant social behavior. A beta female was injured, had given birth to pups and was also lactating. She was looking mighty thin. She ran up the other adults and begged for food. The puppies gathered ‘round her and lo and behold, the puppies regurgitated food to feed her! Wild dogs may be the greatest social predators on Earth.
I got back to the ranch just in time to climb into the helicopter and go out on rhino ops. We managed two ear notches and one dehorning today. The last rhino was a 16-month old female black rhino calf. She ran back toward Natasha and me, but we were on open ground and could see a long way off. I had already climbed a tree earlier in the day, but it wasn’t necessary.
The ground was flat, so we tracked her as she turned away from us, and ran in after her. Typical of black rhinos, as she got woozy she headed directly into an Acacia thorn thicket, crashing as she went down alongside a fallen mopane tree. It was very bad ground. We had to hand saw and pull away dead thorn, which cuts you badly. Chap was finally able to squeeze through and got the ear tags and ear notches done. Blood drawn, butt and horn painted, we ran back to the helicopter and Chap reversed her. As we circled away she was up and out of the thorns and steadily running towards her mother. It is amazing how fast black rhinos recover from the immobilizing drugs.
We ended the day searching for a mother and calf in an area of continuous mopane forest that had just leafed out. Staring though green foliage, looking continuously at the red laterite soil beneath, and continuously focusing without distraction became tough. We kept that up for an hour and turned for home. It was too late in the day to dart. Helicopters are not supposed to fly after sunset and we really try to keep to that rule.
Last day of rhino ops in the Lowveld of Zimbabwe. What an extraordinary day! We started off with an ear notching of a male black rhino calf, which managed to go down in a little watercourse, blocking the whole thing. We had a large Land Cruiser full of locals who wanted to see the operation: a conservancy manager and their boys and an elderly couple.
We did our usual stuff, blood and ear notching and all, and when Chap said, “Ed get them all out of here fast,” I looked at his back (he was moving back to the rhino fast) with utter amazement. Mr. Wilson was a bazillion years old, walked with a cane, and moved as fast as a moderately sized tortoise. I ran ahead. The teenage boys ran with me. I stopped and looked back and waited. Here he came! I ran ahead and stopped. Nothing I could do would move these folks a lick faster.
I started to laugh. Here we had these slow pokes. On the other end of this adventure we had a 600 pound black rhino calf, which was about to go berserk. Well, what’s fatalism anyhow! I continued to herd them along. We all got back in the vehicle. Chap must have waited an extra 20 minutes before he reversed the drugs. We left them behind and went back to work.
The second rhino, a dehorning, was even more amusing. Tasha and I were dropped off in a large open area. We picked out our trees. We could hear the helicopter pushing the big black bull toward us. I tried out my tree. No problemo.
I walked over to Tasha who was just then intently looking into the thorn bush. “Did you hear those elephants? They must have gotten wind of us. You better get back to your tree.”
“I don’t want to climb a tree. Elephants push trees over when they’re pissed off. Then they stomp you. I want to run away.” We waited not knowing whether to climb or run.
The elephants actually behaved and we ran into the rhino site. We saw the elephants from the helicopter after we finished up. The elephants had warned us and then walked off.
I was getting pretty blue. Here it was, our last day, and I had not been the first to spot a rhino from the air. Finally, at 4:30 p.m., we found a cow and calf and lost sight of them while the helicopter spun around. I shouted out: “Mother and calf, 10 o’clock!” I had spotted them before the others. Quite satisfying.
We darted the calf, a large, 21-month-old female black rhino, and did our work. We took off, dusk approaching, and looked around for one last job. After 5 p.m. I spotted a black rhino almost underneath us. I shouted out. Seconds later, Natasha called out a white rhino cow and calf. Almost immediately Tasha recognized the calf as the one we had darted a half hour earlier, spotting the mom converging on her position. Four rhinos in the same spot.
Tasha screamed: “Get us out of here! Go, go, go!” The black rhino mom and calf were already traumatized. They didn’t need a helicopter chasing them around. Besides the sun was setting. Having flown a Robinson 44 after dark, I was happy to call it done.
Thus ended 2017 rhino ops at Devuli Ranch, the Lowveld, Zimbabwe.
Ed Warner is an author, a member of the board of directors of The Sand County Foundation, a Trustee for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and an Honorary Professor at Colorado State University. Learn more about his book “Running with Rhinos” at his website, www.edwardmwarner.com. More about the IRF’s Rhino Conservancy Project in Zimbabwe can be found here.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post.