Hunting rhino - with a microchip and clipboard

It’s a poacher’s moon, ranger Rudi Venter says as we gaze up at the huge luminous circle turning the grassy plains into a brightly lit arena.

I’m admiring the spooky lighting, but Venter is nervously anticipating the next few hours. After he drops us back at our lodge from the evening game drive, I don’t realise he’ll be on patrol from 1am until 5am to keep rhino poachers at bay. Tonight if poachers hunt in Madikwe Game Reserve they won’t need any headlights or torches that risk alerting rangers to their presence.

In the morning Venter is waiting at 6.30am with an exciting proposal. There’s a rhino tagging operation under way, and we have permission to join them. We leap into the vehicle and race to the nearby airstrip, ignoring elephants and zebra idly chomping in the bushes. We’re after black rhino, and nothing else will do.

A van marked “Stop Rhino Poaching” is parked on the runway, and we’re greeted by bleak looks. Poachers killed another two rhino near Mafikeng last night, growls weather-beaten Rusty Hustler, head of security for North West Parks and Tourism Board. Today’s tagging exercise doesn’t deter poachers, but is part of a rhino management programme started before poaching became an epidemic in 2008.

Every year Madikwe runs a census to monitor the size of its rhino population. Each animal is identified by a series of notches cut into one ear, with each notch representing a different value. When a vet notches an animal they also take DNA samples and insert microchips into the horn and the back of the neck. All the details are filed in a database along with photographs, so their growth and condition can be monitored each year. The chips aren’t GPS tracking devices, because most of Madikwe has scant cellphone coverage. They’re more like barcodes, so if a horn is recovered from poachers it can be traced back to Madikwe. If a carcass is found minus its horn, the chip in the neck identifies the victim.

Vet Charlotte Moueix climbs into the tiny helicopter to search for any remaining unnotched black rhinos. The ground crew stand around swapping stories and killing time. “There’s a lot of hurry up and wait,” says field ecologist Carlien Esterhuizen. “It makes you wonder why you set the alarm for 4.30am.”

There are only 4,000 surviving black rhinos in the world, classed in three sub-species. A fourth sub-species, the western black, was declared extinct in 2011. Hustler is very aware the other three could follow that fate, with poachers slaughtering an average of two a day in South Africa. There are 20,000 white rhino left, a population he describes as sustainable. “If we had the same awareness that people have about elephants it would be a different scenario,” he says. South Africa has already lost about 570 rhino this year. If it was 570 elephants the world would be in uproar, but the rest of the world isn’t really concerned about rhino, Hustler says.

We discuss ways of combating poaching, perhaps by poisoning the horns, legalising the trade or farming rhino for their horns. The horn grows continually, like human nails, and you can remove five inches a year without cutting through anything crucial. So a farm could produce a decent harvest without harming the animals.

Venter favours shooting poachers on sight, believing potential death would deter most criminals.

Hustler’s radio crackles to life and I work out it’s a ranger on a morning drive with a group of tourists. He’s found some human footprints in the north of Madikwe, but they don’t belong to any of his colleagues. Hustler calls the helicopter and diverts it to inspect the footprints. The ground crew’s chatter subsides as we wait for news. Venter paces. Enforcement officers finger their guns. Somebody smokes. The radio splutters again and Hustler walks away, but I hear him asking when, and how many.
A white rhino bull has been killed a few kilometres away, and the human tracks lead to tyre marks where the poachers were collected by a vehicle. Hustler wonders if there’s time to seal the gates, but the rhino was killed between 5am and 7am. Blood is still dripping from the hacked off stump, he says.

An hour later the helicopter is back on tagging duty, and we follow in our vehicles. Once an unmarked rhino is spotted it must be darted before it flees into the undergrowth. If the ground crew isn’t close, they may not find the drugged animal in time to tag it, notch it and revive it quickly to keep it safe.

The sun has grown intense when the call comes in. A mother, already tagged, with a two-year-old unmarked calf. We leap into the truck and Venter floors it. Moueix has mixed a junior dose of knock-out drug and fired it into the calf’s flank. The pilot skilfully weaves and hovers to drive the calf towards the road where it conks out in a clearing. But the undarted mother is frantically trying to reach her baby and will trample all us if she gets through. The helicopter hovers continually, scaring her away.

After six hours of waiting the team crouches down in a well-practiced routine. Someone blindfolds the calf to protest its eyes. Esterhuizen gets out a drill and pushes the bit into the horn so a chip can be inserted. Assistants are scraping toenail and horn samples for DNA tests. Venter pops the pieces into sealable bags and marks them up. Moueix has made a cut in the calf’s back and inserted a chip, and now hauls out some scary pincers and begins notching an ear. She cuts off a small piece of leathery skins and hands it to me for inspection.

Esterhuizen is struggling with the drill and Venter takes over, pushing hard to make a hole deep enough for a chip to be inserted. Someone applies glue over the top to seal it in. The number ‘52’ is sprayed on the calf’s back for today’s photographs, because that’s the number the notches in its ear will represent.

Within 10 minutes Moueix orders everyone back to the vehicles while she pumps in antidote. Venter tells us to watch carefully, because the calf will wake up quickly and be on its feet and gone within seconds. We wait. There’s not a twitch from the calf. Just the unnerving silence of the bush broken by one persistent bird call.

I look at my watch, hoping Moueix got the dosage right. Then the calf jumps up in an ungainly jerk and is instinctively on the run. He heads straight for us, a ton of frightened and disoriented bone, muscle and blubber. He sees us and does a U-turn, then streaks off into the bush. I realise the helicopter has gone, so I assume the mother is close. They’ll find each other in a couple of hours at most, Venter says.

He’s quiet on the way back to Molori, churning with sadness and anger. “It makes me so mad that I was there from 1am till 5am patrolling that area. They must have waited for me to go.” I feel awful, knowing he only stopped patrolling to come and collect me for a game drive, after a night under a poacher’s moon.