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Phinda Rhino Dehorning Mission

Images courtesy of Howard Cleland.

On the descent into my first arrival circuit, I had a sighting of a big pod of hippos – and once all tied down and covered up, I was greeted by the Phinda ATC – well kinda, as these fellows are a resident herd and seen in/around the airfield daily. My arrival for our Phinda rhino dehorning mission!

Some images are not specifically of de-horning, but I feel that ALL images from a mission are pertinent, because a mission is not made up merely of the aforementioned specifics, but also the prep, positioning flights, fuelling, road transfers, aircraft housekeeping, experiences – and in my case, breakdowns, when breakdowns choose to happen whilst on a mission. So you have the lot in here – even including some social moments, birding, floral delights AND a pangolin rehab walk.

Dress code for day 1 was in support of one of our sponsors SnapOn Tools and with no one to record this, I had to do a selfie. The veranda of my mission digs – terrible ne!

Simon, boss of Phinda treated me to a personalised game drive on my first morning, followed by an orienteering flight and then a log fire braai – I guess it was like dining at The Captain’s table. When it comes to game viewing – well, Phinda is Phinda and famous for never failing to disappoint.

The work got going before first light on Monday, with a briefing between all participants and no shortage of excitement. With two teams of ground crew, the Heli alongside and a target of 30 rhino to be de-horned, you can imagine the atmosphere.

The plan was to get the first customers as close to the centre of operations as possible, avoiding an unnecessary drive to a starting point and literally within ‘circuit’ the first candidate was geo pinned and the heli called in. This is how the day then rolled; with the heli parked in the bush alongside any given darting/job, I and Craig, my top class crewman were off searching for the next and the next. This plan worked to absolute optimum and of course also to the delight of the Phinda management. On day two, we had 16 de-hornings, where every one of those had been sighted, assessed and geo pinned, by myself and Craig. We had quickly become The Spotting A-Team.

Look at this rhino run, I am certain that this fella is using Pirellis, in order to be cornering like that. Jokes aside Orton Bosman is The Master heli pilot, his handling of his R44 is like watching poetry in motion. This coupled to his intimate knowledge of animal behaviour couples into a very rare and practised skill. To know the animal behaviour well enough, to keep a distance when it is alarmed and in sprint mode, but then reading the ‘anaesthetic decline’ and herding tighter and closer as the rhino becomes drowsy, culminating in it dropping in the pilot’s chosen spot This is just about the best act of multi-tasking and control that I have ever watched.

Each horn removed, is measured, weighed and catalogued.

The image below was the GPS track of only Tuesday/Day 2 and overall the Trip counter showed 2350kms within Phinda and Tembe. As aviation goes; to do that mileage on a patch, rather than point to point, is damned demanding and this work is definitely not for sissies. The picture tells a story and you see if you can find a straight line anywhere and all of this being done while searching for animals and/or keeping a spotted animal insight – this is the most intense flying imaginable.

I was scheduled to be going to Tembe on the Thursday, so I kinda counted on Wednesday being a rest and recovery day – Well, I was in for the surprise of my life. I accompanied Simon on an animal management task, of darting one cheetah, for movement from a quarantine boma to the pre-release boma and while it was anaesthetised, to remove a pair of mature males from the same pre-release boma and to go and release these in the wild.

A cosy spot was carefully selected, where foremostly the zone must be cheetah friendly, with adequate prey, but with survival cover. They were laid in the shade and even provided with a wake-up meal. The Vet then gave the anaesthetic reversal and then monitored them – this monitoring is far from hi-tech, but totally effective – done by simply teasing the inner ear hairs with a piece of grass straw. When the cat starts flicking its ear, as if irritated by a fly, then everyone knows to back off and get in their vehicles. Suffice to say that all went well and later that afternoon, there were only the bare rib bones of the nyala meal and no cheetah to be seen.

Simon then bustled us back to base, in order to meet Glen from the pangolin rehab hospital in Jhb. He had arrived with a poached then rehabilitated pangolin, destined for reintroduction into the wilds of Phinda. To walk with this prehistoric scale-covered creature in the open veld was for me, the deepest realisation of the vulnerability of endangered species. I also immediately related to why the general fascination with pangolins, as they are just completely different to anything that one might expect. I forgot this pangolin’s given name, but it is highly probable that this is even one transported by our Bateleurs at the time of its initial rescue.

I could write all night about this experience, but this rhino de-horning pictorial is not the place for that. What I will share, as the question is bound to come, is that the small red items hanging at his sides are little LED lights, attached by a plastic cable tie to a small hole drilled in the side scales. With a feeding period of late afternoon until around midnight, these fellows with their dark mottled colouring can disappear from view in the shadows in a heartbeat. The monitor then follows at a distance and keeping the pangolin insight, is greatly aided by the low and slow flashing of these lights. A herd of wildebeest were as fascinated as I was, with all of us momentarily completely ignoring the fact that we were in Big Five country.

For more images from this mission go to Steve’s website


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