Command centre

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, autumn 2009. Author: Mark Jago, Game Capture Veterinarian, Ministry of Environment and Tourism)

The Rhino Recovery Car, together with its crates and trailers, has permitted the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism to move more black rhinos safely, efficiently and at considerably less cost.

The sound of the 21st-century mobile phone screaming a wake-up call at five o’clock in the morning drags me painfully from a brief two hours of sleep under a crystal clear star-spangled African sky. It is cold, even colder than when we off-loaded our precious cargo of two female black rhinos the night before, deep into the heart of Damaraland in western Namibia. The sound of voices and the aroma of coffee drive the lack of sleep away, and as the first rays of sunshine creep above the horizon, the roar of the helicopter’s jet engine signifies the start of another rhino capture for Namibia’s Ministry of Environment’s rhino capture team.

Capture is fast, challenging work requiring above all the combined effort of a number of individuals united into one well-oiled team. Alongside the people there is a battery of highly specialised vehicles and equipment. This has been modified countless times over the years, as more is understood about the best way to capture and transport rhino and the techniques improve. Capture of wild creatures is by definition stressful for the animals concerned, but the team continuously strives to minimise this stress and to ensure as efficient and as safe an operation as possible. It was with this philosophy in mind that the Rhino Recovery Car (RRC) and the Lightweight Rhino Crate and Trailer system was built. These pieces of kit have proved to be highly successful.

In the foreground, the translocation team mud wrestles with a rhino; in the middle distance, the Rhino Recovery Car stands ready with drugs, ropes, water hose, generator etc

Credit: Dave Hamman

Funded in part by Opel Zoo, the RRC has brought together into a single vehicle all the kit needed to carry out the numerous procedures that are required for a rhino to be translocated. The converted 4x4 Landcruiser is always the first to arrive by the side of the sleeping rhino. It carries water to cool down the rhino, ropes to secure and move it, bush-cutting equipment to clear a road in for loading, and a myriad of veterinary equipment to monitor and support our prehistoric patient. Supplemental oxygen, pulse oximeters, thermometers, cooling fans are all ready to hand at a second’s notice. A portable generator powers the drill that neatly fits a radio transmitter into the horn, so the animal can be located and monitored after translocation. Equipped with both ground-to-air and inter-vehicle radios, the RRC is the command centre for each and every rhino capture.

A few years ago Pierre du Preez and his colleagues in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism started looking at the option of using lightweight rhino crates and trailers to recover and transport black rhino. Costing significantly less than the older systems, these have now been refined into veritable first-class travelling compartments!

The crates are significantly smaller than their predecessors and constructed of the minimal amount of steel needed to contain a rhino safely. With doors at both ends, rhinos can be easily loaded and offloaded. The interior is lined with rubber conveyor belting to minimize any chance of the rhino injuring itself. With air vents cut into the sides and back, trap doors on the top which may be open or closed, and the crate painted with a heat resistant paint, critical temperature control is about as good as it gets. The crates can be rapidly winched up onto a low, simple trailer, which then is pulled by a standard Toyota Landcruiser from the remotest parts of the Namibian bush, before being cross-loaded by crane to the large 6x6 transport truck, which can carry up to three crates at present.

All the equipment requires continual maintenance, for wear and tear is significant, but the equipment has undoubtedly been an essential factor in helping Namibia pursue its ambitious and successful black rhino conservation programme.


Our thanks to Opel Zoo in Kronberg, Germany, for its grant of 50,000 euros over a period of four years, as part of the EAZA Rhino Campaign.