Have you hugged a rhino today?

I can hear it. The thud, thud, thud coming closer…

My ears scanning,

Where is the noise coming from?

I feel a sharp sting in my bum…

They’ve got me!

My head starts spinning…

I can’t feel my feet!

Strange figures rush to me…

Herding me, sticking things in my ears, blindfolding me.

But I don’t feel hate.

I feel love.

They are here to help!

When Toyota invited us to join them on a rhino dehorning initiative, I could never have guessed what I was about to experience! Tears, dust, and more emotions than I could handle.

It was early on a Thursday morning when I arrived at Toyota South Africa’s head office in Sandton, not expecting too much of what the invitation dubbed “Toyota’s Rhino Initiative”. Soon my partner in adventure, conservation and nature film maker, Altie Fouché, arrived. Together we would be piloting a Toyota Fortuner 4×4 AT VX to the Pilanesberg and back over the next two days.

Driving through to Pilanesberg Nature Reserve we speculated about what was about to happen since the fairly cryptic info from Toyota was that we would be part of a dehorning team. Not sure what our involvement would be, we wondered exactly what lay ahead of us.

Arriving at the Black Rhino Gate of Pilansberg we were greeted by John Thomson, Vice President: Future Toyota at Toyota. Gone was his suit and tie – the man in front of us was in full khaki, boasting a weekold beard and grinning like a Cheshire cat. A quick brief from John explained what was about to happen. We needed to follow them, and fast! Joining us were Allan and Ronel from other publications and Karen Strever, from Toyota‘s communications team and the person who takes care of environmental and conservation projects within Toyota. We quickly jumped into the Fortuner and in a blink of an eye, everything became quite serious. We were chasing rhinos now.

It was mid-June and winter was in full swing. The roads were dusty, and I could barely see where I was going as I chased John in his Land Cruiser Double Cab on the narrow dirt road. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a helicopter. It was swaying as if out of control in the air, but I soon learned that pilot Dolf had that helicopter dancing on a penny, herding the rhinos closer to the road. As John fell in behind another Land Cruiser on the road, we chased the chopper. Dust engulfed us and I could barely see a thing as the brake lights of John’s Cruiser lit up in front of me.

We stopped abruptly and ahead of us a scramble started. People were flying out of vehicles grabbing bags and boxes and rushing into the veld. John paused for a second, turned and waved us closer. The Fortuner’s doors were flung open as five people struggled to get out fast enough. I needed my camera and my phone, which I hastily grabbed before chasing after the team. Barely 20 metres into the veld we encountered orchestrated chaos as people were pricking and collecting data. In front of me lay a giant of the bush – a wild white rhino!

This was the closest I had ever been to one and my heart was pounding in my chest. The feeling was surreal. Amid this controlled chaos, John called me closer: “Anton, stick your hand in here!” He pointed at the fold between the rhino’s rump and its rear legs. I hesitantly slid my hand in between the body parts, it was warm and soft. My mind went blank, emotions boiled up inside me and I struggled to hold back the tears.

buzzing sound pulled me out of my trance and I could see the vet starting to cut off the horn with a huge saw. I needed pics! I lifted my camera and started clicking away. Before I realised, everything was over and we were being rushed back to our vehicles. They were going to wake the rhino now. Less than 10 minutes later we watched this grey giant peacefully walking away. Data was quickly captured, the horn marked and documented and then the crisp of the radio broke the silence – the next rhino had been found and darted! We needed to go, as in now!

As we all clumsily jumped back in the Fortuner and pulled off in the dust there was an eerie silence in the vehicle. We were all trying to digest what had just happened. Had we really just experienced this? But before we could fully comprehend our situation the brake lights of John’s Land Cruiser lit up the dust ahead. Here we go again!

On our second stop, we didn’t wait for any waving arms to call us over. We rushed towards the sleeping giant. My camera captured every second. This was a big old lady. “The calf ran off,” someone shouted and suddenly everyone went into overdrive. Mom and calf needed to be reunited and it needed to happen fast! Dolf and the vet, Gerhardus, jumped into the helicopter and with Airwolf-like speed, it lifted off the ground, heading to where the calf had last been seen. It wasn’t long before a fellow journo spotted the calf running down the road towards us.

The little three-month old was kicking up dust that would put a cheetah to shame. The pink fluff of the dart stuck out like a small antenna. About 20 metres from us, she finally collapsed and went to sleep. The team rushed over, manoeuvred her onto a stretcher and started carrying her to the waiting helicopter. Within minutes the 120kg baby was strapped into the back seat and Dolf and Gerhardus set off to reunite mother and calf. As the helicopter flew over my head with the huge baby’s head sticking out halfway a large lump formed in my throat, and I realised these guys are true superheroes – where are their capes?

At our third or fourth rhino that we darted that day, my mind was still going at a thousand miles per hour. The big beast was lying in front of me when John asked nonchalantly: “Have you hugged a rhino today?” As I walked closer to the gentle giant, John nodded towards the rhino. I slowly kneeled beside it, wrapped my arms around its enormous body and got my first hug from a rhino. A special moment that I will treasure forever. As an avid photographer with a deep love for wildlife the dehorning of rhinos in Pilanesberg is an initiative close to John’s heart. “My passion is photography, and I’ve always had a special affinity for rhinos. I think the gravity really set in when my granddaughter was born. I was busy with my photographs, and she was sitting on my lap looking at the screen and at me looking at rhinos. I wondered if her child or her grandchild would ever see a rhino in the wild. That’s what just drives your passion levels even higher. We are here now, and we can do something about it,” he explained over a drink later that day. Indeed John, we are here now, and we have a responsibility to keep this species alive for all our grandchildren. Thank you for leading the way!

About Pilansberg Nature Reserve

Pilanesberg Nature Reserve is the sanctuary for a very important rhino population in South Africa. Both species have adapted extremely well in the reserve and the excess from both species has been used to reestablish new populations across southern Africa.

For the past seven years, the park’s rhino population has been plagued by poaching (as was the case across the continent). During this period more than 120 rhinos were lost in the reserve due to poaching. This triggered a steady decline in the rhino population, which prompted the North West Parks Board and private enterprises to take drastic intervention measures to save their rhino population. The decision was made to trim the horns of all the rhinos in the reserve with the help of veterinary services experts. The team started working through the park, trimming the horns of all white and black rhinos, males and females, and calves. This also included treating any wounds or old gunshot wounds found on the animals.

Over the years, the procedure of trimming the horns has been developed into a detailed protocol with almost no risk to the animal. It has been proven that the risk of loss of an animal, as well as injuries or improper removal of the horn, is eliminated when it is conducted by a qualified and experienced veterinarian (the red on the dehorned spot in our photographs are from a disinfectant, similar to mercurochrome, sprayed on and not blood!).

The animal is located, darted and immobilised by a veterinarian from a helicopter. When the animal is down, it is located by the ground team in the shortest possible time, the eyes and ears are immediately covered, and condition immediately monitored. The cutline on the horns is marked, and the horns are cut very close to the base with an electric wood saw.

The stump is then rounded with an angle grinder to remove all excess horn. The whole operation takes less than 15 minutes, followed by the team withdrawing from the animal. The animal is woken up by the veterinarian and strolls off, slightly disorientated, but completely healthy and strong without any injuries or fatalities. It’s truly bizarre that rhino horn is such a valuable commodity for poachers and hunters. It’s not even really a horn at all. Animal horns grow as bone from the skull. A rhino horn is actually keratin or fibrous protein. The horn is not attached to the skull but sits loosely on top of it and is more part of the skin than anything else. You can actually wiggle it and see it move separately from the skull. It’s like a really long fingernail, or really long compressed and hardened hair, which is the same stuff. Just like nails and hair, if a horn falls off naturally, it will likely grow back eventually.

Black rhino horns are the longest of the African rhino species and can reach up to 1.2m in length. It is used to scratch and dig for food, making it another fascinating tool, just like those amazing flexible top lips. Strategically, from a security perspective, Pilanesberg has a few severe challenges. The size of the reserve, the mountainous terrain, the size of management blocks and the surrounding provincial roads all make this reserve a target for poachers. The motivation behind the dehorning operation is to ensure that the reward to poachers is reduced and the risks are increased. This was also a key finding in a study commissioned by the National Department of Environmental Affairs on the effectiveness of horn trimming as a deterrent to poaching. The Board is in the process of increasing its security efforts in Pilanesberg and other reserves significantly. There are fears that horn trimming may have an impact

on the behaviour of the animals, specifically in terms of defending territories and exerting dominance over other inferior bulls. However, data from the Zimbabwe Lowveld Conservancies shows that trimmed rhinos are as likely to retain territories as horned individuals. It needs to be acknowledged that a rhino’s horn is its primary defence mechanism. The bulls use it to defend their territory and dominance, and cows to defend their calves from predators and bulls. For this reason, all animals in a population need to be trimmed in the shortest possible time to prevent horned individuals from displacing or injuring trimmed animals. However, possible ecological or behavioural problems associated with horn trimming can be justified against the imperative of keeping the rhinos alive.

Did you know ?

  • White rhinos are the second-largest land mammal, and their name comes from the Afrikaans word “wyd lip” which means wide lip and refers to the animal’s mouth. Due to a miss translation from Afrikaans to English “wyd” became white. White rhinos are also known as the square-lipped rhinos and are grass eaters. • Rhinoceros is a Greek word, meaning nose (rhino) and horn (ceros).
  • Black rhinos have a prehensile, meaning hooked, lip for pulling leaves off branches.
  • Rhinos run on their toes – that’s a lot of weight to carry!
  • As the saying goes, rhinos do have thick skin – however, they can still get sunburnt.
  • Black rhinos are the third biggest of the five types of rhinos.
  • Black and white rhinos are both, in fact, grey.

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