Team tagging in Etosha National Park: Field report April 2011

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, autumn 2011. Author: Kenneth Donaldson)

Etosha is magnificent. It’s vast. It’s beautiful. It’s one of Africa’s greatest National Parks. It’s one of the jewels of Namibia. It’s stuffed full of elephants, lions, leopards, honey badgers, wild cats, chameleons, wart-hogs, monitor lizards. All life is there, in abundance. And it’s home to a large population of happy and well-looked-after rhinos.

Pierre du Preez, Namibia’s Rhino Coordinator and Chief Scientist in the Ministry of the Environment and Tourism had kindly invited us to come and see the team tagging rhinos. This was an extraordinary offer; privileged access to the Park and a chance to observe an aspect of rhino husbandry that few get to witness.

Now, we’d seen telly documentaries about rhino “immobilisations” as these ops are usually called. But what we’d never appreciated is just how tight the teamwork has to be. Once the rhino’s darted, it’s a race to minimise downtime, finish the job in hand (in this case inserting telemetry equipment into the horn), and simultaneously take all sorts of vital statistics, DNA samples and other measurements. So here’s the step by step guide:

The Ministry of Environment and Tourism's Rhino Recovery Vehicle parked next to a tranquilised rhino in Etosha National ParkCredit: All images: Save the Rhino International

First, find your rhino. This usually involves a ground crew of trackers and a spotter plane. The vet sits pretty in the helicopter and darts the animal from the air. Once the dart is in, the chase is truly on, with ground crew and chopper converging on the drugged animal

 

Rhinos should have their eyes covered while sedated, to prevent the retinas being burned by the sun. Plugs of cotton in the ears prevent damage to the ear drum from the noise of the drillOnce you have found the unconscious beast, get eye-cover on (or the sun may blind it as it sleeps) check how it’s fallen, get oxygen ready, and the ballet really begins

 

 

 

 

 

A power drill driven by a generator is used to carve out a hole in the horn (usually the anterior) big enough to hold the transmitterEar plugs in (the rhino), drill out

 

 

 

 

Rhinos need to be kept cool while sedated; shade and a water hose are perfectHose the animal down and get it some shade. The chopper pilot doubles as brolly man. Never waste a skilled resource!

 

 

 

The vets take the opportunity to use ultra-sound equipment to determine whether this cow is pregnant

All the while, the vet is monitoring vitals. In this case, there are three vets crammed in there (don’t ask!)… while the animal is being measured: length, girth, horn size, sex, age, you name it

 

 

 

Collecting ticks from the rhino's groin area - these will be analysed later for any diseases & an estimate of tick-load recordedCollect some tail hairs and some ticks for analysis. A ticklish job and no mistake.

 

 

 

Water-soluable spray paint or crayons are used to mark the rhino's back, so that spotters in the air can easily tell whether the rhino has recently been darted and treatedDon’t forget to paint its back, so you know not to dart it again!

 

 

 

 

Ear notches cut into the rhinos' ears allow easier individual identification for monitoring purposesNotch the ears and take photos for the record

 

 

 

 

Once the hole has been drilled, the transmitter is inserted and then a resin mix poured in to seal it. The resin (often pink!) soon fades to match the colour of the hornBy now the hole in the horn is ready for the transmitter, which is glued in place

 

 

 

 

A team of vets from the USA and Indonesia measure carbon dioxide levels in the rhino's exhalations, to established whether it is better to position it sternally or laterally while sedated

Now, it happened that in Etosha, an international team of three vets were doing research on how best to lay out the unconscious animal, in terms of its breathing patterns. So if the vet overseeing the darting says it’s OK to go on, then the three research vets get to work. Note how the vets hog the shade!

 

 

It only takes a minute or two for the rhino to come round after the antidote is administered, so by preference, the vet leaves in a helicopter for a quick getaway! The aerial view also lets the vet check that the animal is walking fine and that no nerves have been trapped while unconsciousEveryone bar the vet clears the site. The chopper stands by. The vet gives the wake-up drug and runs for the chopper. One grumpy rhino!

 

 

 

We did between five and seven rhinos each day, getting up at 5am, first animal down around 7am, last animal at around noon, after which it was dangerously hot for the animal to be stressed. Hell of a morning’s work. An experience we will never, ever forget.

Our lasting impression is of the utter professionalism of these people. Everyone knows the routine inside out, knows their job, doesn’t stand in others’ way, gets the whole thing done in double-quick time. It’s very much like an episode of ER, but outdoors, with rhinos, and a much better-looking cast!

Grants

Our deep thanks to Opel Zoo in Kronfeld, which has supported MET since the EAZA Rhino Campaign 2005-6 with annual grants of €5,000. This year’s funding has been used to buy metal detectors (to be used at crime scenes) and a nifty little anti-poaching device we are keeping quiet about just now…