SOUTH AFRICA’S KRUGER NATIONAL PARK is one of the most popular game reserves in the world, and with the size of a small province, protecting all of the creatures and terrain within it is close to impossible. The country is home to the majority of Africa’s rhinos, and many of those reside in and around Kruger National Park.

Needless to say, the combination of these factors makes the Kruger ground zero for rhino poaching — more than 600 rhinos have been maimed and destroyed already in 2014.

Fighting rhino poaching has become a war for the people protecting these animals, and a game of high risk with very high reward for those engaging in the poaching, stealing, and dealing of the horns, which can be sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market.

With no real way of protecting rhinos from poachers in the wild, in real time, de-horning has come to represent the best, if not the most ideal, solution. The painless procedure is executed in a few well-timed steps:

  • A search helicopter locates an animal, and vets on board tranquilize it with darts shot from the aircraft.
  • The ground crew then rushes in to secure the darted rhino; an anchor rope is tied between a leg and a nearby tree to prevent self-inflicted injuries. The animal is blindfolded to keep it calm.
  • The majority of the horn is chainsawed off around 8cm from its base, removing the incentive for poachers to hunt, maim, and kill the animal.
  • A few short tests are done, from the checking of ear notches (to identify the animal) to the drawing of blood for DNA samples. The animal is then released.
  • After being microchipped, the horn is locked away in an unknown location.

On my outing near Hoedspruit with Tim Parker, head ranger of the community-driven organization Rhino Revolution, I experienced firsthand just how strong rhino are. One mother crashed into our Land Cruiser to protect her calf, and I saw a darted rhino fight the drugs in its system and jump up halfway through the procedure to stand its ground, sending us running.

What I came away with was an understanding that, while de-horning is tragic to witness, it might just save or prolong the species’ existence. The very thin line between these powerful animals and their fragile survival makes you realize just how serious the rhino war is.

Photo: Author