Rhinos without borders: preparation & capture

| 1st November 2013

The Rhinos Without Borders translocation team

In the first of a three part blog in which Les Carlisle joins a team of translocation experts, he discovers the buzz of darting and blindfolding a rhino, whilst considering the absurd fact that their very existence is threatened due to the growth of an inert keratinous material on their heads ...
The helicopter swooped down and the call of ‘dart in' came over the air


For those of you who are wondering why simply moving rhino from one place to another warrants such a great deal of fuss and excitement, the answer is simple. Translocation is the main reason why we still have rhino today.

The power of translocation accounts for how, in very little over 100 years, the 20 to 50 white rhino living in what is now the Hluhluwe Game Reserve in South Africa were able to grow and account for over 400 separate populations in 9 African countries.

This kind of success provides powerful evidence to support the importance of translocation. By splitting up the populations and relocating them to suitable habitats throughout Africa, the number of white rhino in the world has grown more than ten times as rapidly as it would have if no translocation had taken place.

Not only does moving the animals provide additional security by spreading them throughout a larger area, but it also helps maintain rapid population growth rates. In addition, in fenced game reserves, translocation prevents populations from becoming higher than the environment can comfortably support.

Despite the success of translocations, we are still facing an uphill struggle with poaching which is sadly on the rise in South Africa. 2012 saw 668 animals killed at the hands of poachers and the figures for this year look even worse; we are losing almost two rhino a day across the country.

This just confirms that we need to explore all avenues in our fight for the survival of the majestic African rhino. It also reinforces the need for translocation to secure destinations, such as the one we are embarking on now!

When you plan a conservation initiative that involves an international translocation you need many things to fall into place and many attributes to be successful. &Beyond's gaur translocation in India last year was six years in the making and ‘Rhinos Without Borders' has taken four years to put together.

Regardless of species, the success of a translocation requires patience, persistence and the dedication of a highly experienced team to handle the actual capture, quarantine and translocation.


&Beyond's ground-breaking rhino translocation project has been really hotting up with the arrival of Cecil Riggs, Max Tidimalo and Sekora Gunikhwe at Phinda Private Game Reserve. During their time at Phinda, Cecil and Sekora, who are part of the anti-poaching unit operated in Botswana, will receive training in the use of radio telemetry and Max will complete a course which will qualify him to track and view certain high-profile game (including rhino) on foot. 

Now that the whole crew has arrived, the planning is getting to the really detailed stages - the road has been plotted, cut open and tested with heavily laden transport vehicles, the river crossings have been checked to make sure that they are firm enough for the trucks and the CITES and veterinary permits have arrived. We are ready to get our rhinos.

The helicopter swooped down and the call of ‘dart in' came over the air

As the team assembled at Phinda Forest Lodge there was such a buzz of excitement in the air. Looking round the room, I felt slightly overwhelmed to be surrounded by, without doubt, the best translocation team in the world: Dr Dave Cooper, veterinarian from KZN Wildlife and arguable the best wildlife vet around; Grant Tracy and Kester Vickery, each veteran game capture and translocation experts with more than 20 years of experience; as well as rhino monitors, trackers and security personnel. These rhinos are in good hands.

At first light we grabbed a cup of coffee and a rusk before leaving the lodge and piled into four vehicles. The plan was to catch as many of the rhino as we could on the first morning. The worst case scenario was that we would only dart two that morning and then two more in the evening, with the last two being captured the following morning.

This meant that we potentially had three different window periods to work in, with the ability to extend them if needed. Simon Naylor, our warden, introduced us to the equipment and reiterated the briefing from the night before, especially the safety issues. Dave and I showed the group of donors and the press the darts that we would be using on the animals and explained the mechanisms that make remote injection possible.

Suddenly the radio crackled to life and Simon announced that the rhino monitoring team had found the animals that we wanted. It was show time! Each vehicle was given an airband radio so we could all follow the action, but stay out of the way. The helicopter guided us to a junction on the main entrance road and, once the recovery vehicles and all of us were in place, the helicopter swooped down and the call of, ‘dart in' came over the air.

At this call many team members started their stop watches. The darting process is very well understood and there are specific times when distinct evidence of the induction of the drugs should be visible. After four minutes, the call came from the helicopter to start moving towards their position, about 600 to 800m from us.

The recovery trailer and its crew went first and we followed in convoy. The ground crew's first action was to get a blindfold on to the immobilised rhino even before it went down.

The second action was to get heavy ropes onto the animal, one on the head and one on the back foot.

The reason for this is that it is relatively easy to walk an immobilised animal if it is blindfolded, sometimes even walking it straight into the trailer.

This first rhino went down in a reasonably open area and the team was quick to get the recovery trailer in front of the now blindfolded and roped animal.

She was a beautiful cow and big, with a slightly larger horn than we had expected. A quick debate between the capture team and the managers resulted in the removal of the tip of her horn to reduce the chance of her breaking the whole horn off during transport.

As the cut piece of rhino horn was passed around everyone without fail was devastated that this piece of inert, keratinous material could be the reason why these beautiful beasts are slaughtered without a second thought.

Les Carlisle has spent 20 years with safari specialists andBeyond and is currently the group's Conservation Manager. A true authority when it comes to game capture, Les can be credited with the successful translocation of 40,000 animals in the last 10 years from elephants and buffalo to rhinos and giraffe. His methods have revolutionised wildlife management the world over.





More from this author


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here