As the sun peaked over the mountains, its warm rays slowly started to bring the dry, shrubby bushveld of Northern Limpopo to life, while the morning chorus of birds and insects began to take over from the nocturnal sounds.

This was the usual way an African morning would start. Sometimes it could be a little slower than normal, but one thing that happened every morning was the waking of the rhino monitors at Wild Life Conservation, in South Africa.

I had the honour of working there for 14 months as a rhino monitor, getting to know and helping contribute to protecting our crash of rhinos. Being part of a dedicated team and being given the freedom to work alongside these amazing animals was a massive privilege that I’ll never forget.

Rhino monitoring plays a crucial role in rhino protection and conservation. The reason these animals need so much protection and attention is because they are heavily poached for their horns, with three rhinos on average killed every day.

During the past decade, more than 8000 rhinos have lost their lives in Africa alone. With this being the case it’s important to know where your rhinos are and how they are going. This means long stressful nights and days in the African bush.

The reason behind the high poaching numbers is because rhino horn is worth more than gold, and can fetch up to $70,000 a kilogram on the Asian black markets. It’s mainly used in traditional medicines but, more recently, it’s used just as a status symbol. With a growing middle-class population in China and Vietnam, buying rhino horn to use at parties or just to say you have rhino horn, is a way to show you have money and you are doing well financially.

Rhino horn has never been proven to have any medicinal value and is basically useless to humans. The only thing that needs a rhino horn, is a rhino. Rhino horn is made up of a protein called keratin, the same protein as in human hair and fingernails. It constantly grows but the rhino shapes it to keep it sharp.

Spending so much time with the rhinos, you learn about their personalities and behaviours. You get to see how their social structure works and how they bond with each other. They are incredible animals that’s for sure. That was my goal as a wildlife photographer – to bring rhinos into people’s lives, show them how amazing they are and try to bring about change. People want to save the things they love.
As the rhino monitors and volunteers woke that morning, well before first light, there was a different mood in the air. One of nerves and anticipation, not quite sure what the day would bring. Our rhinos were joining many others around Africa in having their horns safely removed in the hope it would make them less attractive to a poacher and their high-calibre rifle.

During the previous few months of my work at the reserve, we’d had a high number of potential poachers on the property. Even though we were constantly trying to prevent an incident from occurring, it all became too much and seemed like only a matter of time before we would lose an animal. The rhinos’ lives were at stake, as well as our own, so the decision was made to see if dehorning would ease some of the pressure.

This was not an easy decision. The reserve management and our own team decided it would be the best way to keep them safe. But by no means is it a solution to the poaching epidemic that’s gripping African rhinos, however, it is definitely a deterrent to help better protect a smaller population. Added with constant anti-poaching, monitoring and fence patrols, all these deterrents add up, leaving an area less desirable to poachers. As long as complacency doesn’t kick in, a crash of rhinos can be a lot safer.

The whole population of rhinos on the reserve would have this procedure – if all the rhinos weren’t dehorned it would leave some with an unfair advantage.

Spending a lot of time with the rhinos showed the horns could play a role in the herds social structure. We had a massive female that had a half-moon-shaped horn and one slightly smaller female that had a straight horn. Both were very impressive animals but the smaller rhino, with the straighter horn, seemed to be the dominant one. Rhinos use their horns to defend themselves, so we weren’t sure what was going to happen after the dehorning.

We headed out early, before first light, to locate the rhinos. Luckily, they were all close together and not too far away from the main camp. This was going to be a good area to dart the animals because it was a lot more open than some of the other areas on the reserve. We messaged the locations then headed to the hanger where we were all due to meet the vet.

We helped take the helicopter out of the hanger while the pilot did all the necessary checks and didn’t have to wait long for the vet to arrive. Everyone chatted about what was going to happen as the vet got the drugs ready for the dart gun, which would temporarily immobilise the rhinos for the procedure. It’s difficult to dart rhinos because they are so sensitive to the drugs, so we needed to work fast and be super vigilant to make sure the animals were okay.

Soon everyone was ready and knew the role they were going to play. We were in one of the vehicles with the radio, so we were going to be relaying the messages to everyone. With everything set and the plan in place we headed out close to the area where the rhinos were and waited with anticipation.

Everyone sat quietly on the vehicles, the only thing that broke the silence was a few people whispering to each other. The sun became brighter the higher it went but the air was still cool as the morning transitioned from freezing to the sunny winter’s day that had been forecast.

The African bush sang like it normally does in the mornings, but was soon overshadowed by the rumble of the rotor blades of the helicopter. Everyone sprang into action, ready for the instructions. Soon the helicopter flew overhead and its crew began looking for the rhinos. It wasn’t long before they found a mother and two-year-old calf, which would be the first rhinos to be darted.

Both went down close to each other without any hassles – a calf will always stay close to its mother no matter what, showing just how close a bond they share. The calf was first even though she had just a little stump of a horn. The vet on the ground asked the reserve owner which method he’d prefer to use: either a hacksaw, which would take longer but gets more of the horn, or a chainsaw, which is faster. He chose the chainsaw because he wanted to get this done as quickly as possible with minimal stress to the rhinos.

Everyone moved in, the calf was on her side and the chainsaw quickly started. She was just having her horn shaved as it was still only a little stump but was still worth enough for someone to poach her. Everything was running smoothly with the calf so some of us moved to the mother, which was about 50m behind us. Her back end was down but her front legs were still standing.

The vet drew a line around the base of the horn to show where it could be safely removed – it looked like plastic surgery was about to take place. You don’t want to remove the horn too close to the head as it could cause regrowth problems. We put a blindfold on her and some ear muffs to ease the stress then moved her to the ground where it would be easier to remove the horn. While this was happening, the calf woke up and had to be herded out of the way.

As the horn was being removed we change the tracking collar on the rhino’s foot, which had recently been giving us problems. This allowed us to track the animals and their locations and is a must-have tool when monitoring rhinos.

Everything went super smoothly and soon everyone moved back as the drug to the wake the rhino was administered. Within 30 seconds the rhino was awake and everyone moved away to let them calm down and get over the grogginess of the drugs.

We then moved to dart the other rhinos, which ended up going smoothly as well. All the rhinos were darted, horns removed and woken in no time at all. The whole project went better than expected and we left the rhinos alone to recover.

It was a strange experience – during the first rhino dehorning I was full of adrenaline and I just wanted to do the right thing. But after the rhino is up, you take it in what has actually happened.

For the next rhino, it was super difficult. I was holding the head and making sure the ear plugs were in, then it hit home. How can something so pointless, be so necessary? We were removing something that belongs to a rhino, its most charismatic feature, all to help save its life from other humans. My eyes welled up with tears and I kept thinking, “why do we have to do this? Look at what it has come to”.

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We went back to the lodge to allow the environmental authorities to measure, microchip and weigh the removed horns. These guys needed to be present at dehornings to make sure it was done correctly and the correct measures were taken afterwards.

During the dehornings, it was strange to see a man in classic dark-green ranger clothes, moving between everyone’s legs and looking hard at the red, sandy ground. I soon realised he was looking for big bits of rhino horn shavings. People would still take these shavings and sell them, so he collected them up into a little zip lock bag. The shavings would then be included in the total weight of the horn. It was crazy to see even these little bits were worth so much.

Still on a bit of a high, we waited at camp until the afternoon to check on the rhinos. No one was sure what was going to happen or if the rhinos would still trust us after what they had been through. We headed out as the sun was setting.

They were all in the same areas from the morning, probably just resting up. The first rhino we found happened to be the calf and this was super lucky because she didn’t have a tracking collar on. Her head was down smelling the ground. She approached the vehicle because she felt comfortable around it, but we couldn’t see her mother. After quickly checking for a signal, from the tracking collar we realised she was close by. My boss went into the bush to find her and I stayed with the calf. It was taking quite some time to bring the mother out and the calf eventually decided she’d had enough of waiting for us and started to move away in the opposite direction.

I became worried and started calling to the calf to follow me, I thought we could get the two to meet up. The calf had never followed me without its mother so I wasn’t sure if it would. But incredibly she turned around and started walking behind me. This showed she still trusted us and I was over the moon. Rhinos are similar to elephants – they bond with certain things and remember them.

While walking the calf in the mother’s direction, it suddenly became like a scene out of a movie. My boss appeared from behind a bush, followed by a massive rhino. She was found resting against a tree with very little energy. She had probably been searching for the calf and was exhausted. But when we brought the two together we stepped aside and watched as both became full of life and greeted one another. It was an awesome experience and a great way to end a stressful day.

The other rhinos were all doing great and already had their energy back. Incredibly, they all still trusted us. We headed back to camp for dinner. I went out during the night to check on them again and they were still in the same spots and resting up.

During the next few months, we monitored their behaviour, which showed no sign of change. All the rhinos were doing well and when word got out about the dehorning, the poaching activity declined dramatically. We didn’t stop the constant monitoring, and the anti-poaching unit continued their work, and now our rhinos are doing really well.

Hopefully, they are able to live in relative peace and, in the next few years, maybe there will be some little rhino feet running around the African bush – the next generation of rhinos to help the population grow.

Dehorning does cop criticism – obviously everyone wants their rhinos to keep their horns. But with poaching showing no sign of slowing, everything needs to be done to keep the rhinos safe. This procedure went really well and once you got past the emotion of it, you could see this was the right decision for these rhinos.

I’m extremely proud to have been a part of working with this group of rhinos. I learned a lot and missed out on plenty of sleep, but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything.

For more information and to get involved in rhino conservation, visit www.wildnpo.org. Wild Life gives volunteers and students a unique opportunity to contribute directly to rhino conservation and to conservation in general, with a wide variety of wildlife calling the reserve home.