The spirited search for a snared rhino bull

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, Autumn 2013. Author: Samar Ntalamia Programmes Manager, Big Life Foundation)

One Monday morning in March this year, my colleague Anthony was going through camera trap photos and was left agape. On his screen was a photo of a rhino with a wire snare round its neck. 

A closer look showed that he was a bull. Later photos showed the same rhino, visiting the water hole, with the wire snare digging deeper into his neck. A frenzy of activity soon kicked off as units of Big Life ranger teams, along with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers set out into the lava-strewn thicket that covers most of the Eastern black rhinos’ range.

The teams had one goal in mind: find the rhino bull and then call in the vet to dart the animal and remove the wire. The bull was so strong that he had snapped the wire snare from the tree, but was left with a piece trailing from his neck. And every time he walked, he would step on the wire and it would dig deeper into his neck. In addition to the teams in the bush, several sentries were posted to an Observation Post to try to sight the rhino.

As the days passed, with rangers going out in dawn-to-dusk searches, it became very clear that this would not be an easy task. The excitement began to wear off in the first week, and bouts of frustration would really bite after unsuccessful day-long searches. What started off as an exciting walk turned into a trudge, only now and then punctuated by moments of excitement, when the ranger teams thought they had found the rhino bull, only for it to be another rhino.

Among the Maasai, the rhino is famed for pace, fury, strong sense of smell and aggression. When a rhino charges, it moves in a bee line, and does not return to a point after passing it. After nearly 10 days of non-stop searching, the rangers found scratch marks of the wire cable. This confirmed beyond doubt that these were his tracks, which boosted the rangers’ morale. After an hour of searching, one of the trackers stopped and pointed at some dark, rounded protrusion in the bushes.

There was a hush as the vet and rangers crept forward on their bellies, inching slowly towards the rhino. Then, when the vet was just about to take aim with the dart gun, a sudden change of wind alerted the rhino and he exploded away. The search was back to the beginning.

Over the next few days, heavy rainfall washed away many leads, making tracking even more difficult. Sometimes, after a few hours of searching, the impenetrable bush stopped the rangers dead in their tracks. The rangers had only their grit to see them through.

It took the combined efforts of ground-based ranger search teams, as well as aerial support of a chopper and the Super Cub to eventually find and dart the rhino. By this time, the once-rounded rhino bull, was emaciated, weak and on his last legs.

The wire cable had cut down to the bones of his neck, severing tendons and filled, by this stage, with deep infection and maggots. There was nothing anyone could have done to save him; at least his death saved us the decision of having to put him down.

Grants

We are grateful to the following donors for recent grants for Big Life Foundation: USFWS RTCF ($89,829); Chester Zoo’s Act for Wildlife (£15,000), the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust £5,000); Treasure Trust (£2,000); Amnéville Zoo (10,000 euros) and rhino’s energy drinks (2,000 euros). We also gave $16,119 from our core funds. These grants are helping cover ongoing rhino monitoring and protection costs, as well the creation of a second waterhole, deeper inside the Chyulu Hills National Park.