by Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, Ph.D. , IRF Asia Coordinator
One of the most important aspects of working in the field of wildlife conservation is for colleagues from different parts of the world being able to share experiences with the species they are trying to save. This account is of a recent opportunity that was provided me to do just that.
At the last meeting of the IUCN/SSC African Rhino Specialist Group, held from February 16-23, 2013 in Kenya, I had a casual conversation about rhino capture and translocation with Dr. Markus Hofmeyr, Head of Veterinary Wildlife Service for the Republic of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. I had hoped to learn more from Markus about the kinds of drugs he routinely used, wanting to improve similar efforts being carried out under the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 initiative (IRV 2020). This important program receives significant support from the International Rhino Foundation and aims to attain a wild population of at least 3,000 greater one-horned rhinos in the state of Assam by the year 2020. This goal will be achieved by translocating rhinos from areas of high population density to new habitats, where effective protection programs can be put in place.
I asked Markus if it would be possible for me to take part in rhino capture efforts in Kruger, as this would greatly enhance my field experience. He readily agreed and invited me to visit anytime from May through September. June worked best, so I arrived mid-month with my colleague, Kaushik Barua, who handles capture logistics for IRV 2020.
Shortly after our arrival, Markus introduced us to his colleagues in Veterinary Wildlife Service. One of them, operations manager Johan Malan, showed me the many different types of crates he uses to transport wildlife, including both white and black rhinos. Johan also showed me the bomas (shelters) that his staff constructs for housing captured white rhinos.
On the morning of June 19th we met before dawn at the Veterinary Wildlife Service office and from there travelled to the southern part of Kruger. Our goal for the day was to capture four white rhinos. All crates and other logistics were already in place and the Service’s senior manager, Dr. Peter Buss, was stationed in a helicopter high above our team, from which he would dart the target animals. At 0815 hrs he successfully darted a mother and calf, which support staff on the ground were soon able to approach to collect biological samples.
After the samples were collected, both animals rhinos were walked to their awaiting crates. A second mother and calf were darted at 0950 hrs and the same process was followed. However, while the two mother rhinos were transported in different crates, the two calves were placed in a single crate fitted with a divider.
Two days later, we embarked on a second capture expedition, this one led by Dr. Hofmeyr, who darted two sub-adult females. Both animals were sedated prior to being transferred to their bomas, which serves to calm the animals and reduce physical damage that might be caused by moving them to a restricted environment.
One thing that immediately impressed me about rhino translocation operations in Kruger National Park was the type of crates they used. Crates used are essentially 20-ft-long, steel shipping containers, which are incredibly durable and strong enough to handle two-ton pachyderms. By comparison, we have traditionally used wooden crates in India, which are suitable for transporting such large animals but have significantly shorter lifespans and require more frequent maintenance. Perhaps it is time that we switch to steel crates in Assam? Having posed that question and the possible need for change, I’m proud to state that IRV 2020 rhino translocations have been very successful to date, with no serious injuries or casualties having taken place during the capture and translocation processes.