An historical moment to protect the future: Klaserie Sands digs deep for rhino conservation

Posted by Elly on Sun September 20, 2020 in Conservation.

Last year, our team and our guests had the unique opportunity to take part in two dehorning operations alongside wildlife veterinarians, pilots and key members of the reserve’s conservation and management teams.

The following is Elly's recount of the incredible, hands-on experience in which the team got up-close-and-personal with one of the Klaserie's most iconic and threatened animals.

What was once an Eden for the white rhinoceros in South Africa has since seen its population numbers decimated. From the initial, introduced selection of just eight individuals, a healthy population flourished and made the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve its home.

Over the preceding years, illegal hunting single-handedly pushed the white rhinoceros to near extinction in the local area; a devastating result of the immense value of rhino horn on the global market. Used primarily in East Asia as a traditional medicine or luxury item, the current demand for rhino horn vastly outweighs the supply.

With the ever-present threat of illegal poaching in the Greater Kruger and a determination to preserve the species’ stronghold in the Klaserie, the difficult decision was made to commence a largescale dehorning operation.

The process began in April of this year, continuing today with tremendous success throughout the Klaserie and surrounding reserves. The idea that removing the value from the animal will significantly decrease its likelihood of being poached is not a new one, and has been in practice since the late 1980s.

Years spent operating commercial safaris in the area has allowed the team at Klaserie Sands to develop a deep appreciation for the white rhino and a first-hand experience of the plight the species is currently facing. Any opportunity to support the conservation of this impressive animal and ensure its continued existence in the area was not to be missed.

Needless to say, the experience was an emotional one for all involved. Following the aerial location of our unsuspecting target and some impeccably skilled helicopter manoeuvres, a tranquilizer dart was administered and within eight minutes the rhinoceros bull was down.

Our team jumped from the game vehicles and rushed into the bush to assist with the safe positioning of the animal while vets began stabilising the huge bull for the procedure. Drugs were administered intravenously through a vein in the ear and an oxygen tube placed in the nostril to keep the animal stable while under anaesthetic.

Safe positioning of the two-tonne creature during the procedure was paramount; a combined strength of at least eight adults required to roll the rhino onto his opposite side halfway through to ensure he could maintain ample blood supply to the back legs. Of course, as a rhino rests naturally they do so with their feet tucked to one side and will adjust themselves to shift their weight when needed. Snoring under the effects of an extremely strong sedative, the safety of this bull was now in the team's hands.

What we did not anticipate, however, was how deeply the experience would touch us. We looked on, many of us with tears in our eyes, as the magnificent creature had an important part of its anatomy removed in the name of conservation; to hopefully protect its life from illegal poaching.

To think that the poaching crisis has resulted in these actions was devastating, but we were simultaneously filled with hope that the procedure would grant this rhino a peaceful existence, free from the impending threat of his horn adorning somebody's mantlepiece in Asia. As we stroked his back and head, feeling the coarseness of his wrinkled skin under our fingers, the importance of this momentous occasion in the Greater Kruger’s history dawned on us.

It is undoubtable that every individual who had the opportunity to be up close with the two-tonne creature during its horn removal developed a deeper appreciation for the white rhino and a stronger drive to support its continued conservation.

Klaserie Sands staff and guests certainly walked away that day with a greater sense of responsibility to raise awareness about the current poaching crisis and the plight of this awe-inspiring species. Enabling our guests, who are predominantly international clientele, to take part in a unique dehorning operation was a privilege that we hope to sponsor and support well into the future.

We hope that the small part we played that day in protecting these white rhino will allow us to enjoy them in their natural habitat for years to come.

Article written by Elly Gearing with photos courtesy of Peter Morey and Ashleigh Beal.