The events unfolded in slow motion. I knew, but couldn’t believe, what I was about to witness. It’s not every day you see your husband mowed down by a black rhino bull…
We were dehorning rhinos in one of Zimbabwe’s roughest rhino Intensive Protection Zones (IPZs), under a mandate from the southern African country’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (see footnote for more info). The black rhino bull was the fourth rhino to be found in as many hours. We couldn’t believe our luck, as the previous days had yielded few sightings despite many hours spent footslogging by the rangers. So when the helicopter pilot sighted him straight after processing another rhino, the team seized the opportunity to de-horn him, despite exhaustion and hypoglycemia setting in.
This IPZ is no ordinary terrain, however. Mountainous and rugged, with ankle-twisting boulders strewn across the hard ground like outsize marbles, it causes many sleepless nights for vets and pilots alike before the operation. The mopane trees are tall and thick, with very few landing zones (“LZs”) for the helicopter. This inevitably means the helicopter has to offload crew many hundred meters (horizontally and often vertically) from where the rhinos go down. Working here is not for the fainthearted!
Aptly named “Rocky” (after he got himself wedged between two rocks on the 2014 rhino operations — although it might as well have been after “Rocky Balboa”), the black rhino bull is the kingpin of his area. He was the only animal on this operation to face down the helicopter and actually try to charge it before Keith managed to place a dart in his rump.
After darting, Rocky went down in a poor position, with his front legs knuckled and his back end straight on a rock. It meant we had to ferry in the whole vet crew and several rangers to move him. Once he was stable, he was de-horned as standard although we additionally had to treat a suspected bullet wound on his rear end.
Once the gear was packed up and the crew evacuated, I administered the antidote into the rhino’s ear vein and retreated to a perch in a nearby tree. Anticipating that Rocky would lurch forward on waking up and run off because of the disturbance of the hovering helicopter — as the previous rhinos we had treated had done – Keith was standing next to a tree behind the rhino, rather than climbing it. It was a critical error in judgement of how crazy fast a black rhino can move.
Rocky got up, smelled the ground and turned towards my tree. The helicopter didn’t bother him. He wanted payback. I suppressed an urge to shout to Keith to get up the tree, because I knew that might create havoc.
And then, time slowed down, as I realised that Rocky was turning towards Keith and that Keith had underestimated how long it would take to get up the tree. In what must have been a split-second, the rhino barrelled towards him, closing the 20-meter [22-yard] gap, all the while snorting bluff and bluster.
Keith just had time to turn when the rhino butted into his backside, sending him flying onto the rocks. I was sure it was the end. I was sure I was about to experience carnage of unprecedented proportions. But, whether he felt he’d won, or whether his fear of humans finally overpowered him, miraculously the magnificent bull kept on running and didn’t come back to finish Keith off. Keith was lucky to escape with his life. I was incredulous, relieved and livid all at the same time.
From the rocks, Keith sustained a major gash on his left knee exposing his patella. Fortunately, the injury is not in the joint, although there was a tear in his distal iliotibial band. The ops – which require a full team – have been temporarily halted, pending Keith’s recovery. It was a costly mistake, born from fatigue, and an important wake-up call to pay more attention to the potentially fatal risks our work involves.
It has not, however, dampened our resolve. We will continue to fight for the existence of these precious animals. We will continue to support the brave rangers who are on the front-line of the war against poaching. They are currently desperate for fuel for transport — and-200 liter plastic water drums, as they are experiencing severe difficulties in delivering water to all of their bases. The station will also require a solar borehole installation for the rangers and rhinos later this year due to the effects of the severe drought.
Footnote: Under the Zimbabwean National Rhino Strategy, AWARE Trust (www.awaretrust.org) has been mandated to assist with management of rhino populations in three areas. The assistance includes comprehensive de-horning of all rhinos, ear-notching individual animals for identification purposes so the rhinos can be accurately counted (every single rhino in Zimbabwe has its own National Identification Number), camera-trap surveillance to enhance monitoring efforts, and supporting Parks with the provision of essential equipment. AWARE believes that, together with intensified paramilitary anti-poaching efforts, rhino de-horning significantly reduces the reward:risk ratio for potential poachers. It is a major disincentive for a poacher to enter a heavily guarded area if he knows his pickings will be slim. The comprehensive de-horning programme was instituted in these areas in 2010, and since then two of the areas have not lost a single rhino to poaching; in the third area, poaching has been dramatically reduced. All removed horn is micro-chipped and surrendered to Parks and Wildlife Management Authority who hold it in central stores in the capital Harare, where it is monitored by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
Founder Trustee and Director of Operations of AWARE Trustin Zimbabwe, Lisa Marabini was born in Harare, the capital of the southern African country. She graduated from the University of Zimbabwe with a Bachelor of Veterinary Science in 1998 and became a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons by examination in 1999. She has worked in small animal practices in Zimbabwe, Australia and the UK. Lisa has always been passionate about the conservation and welfare of wildlife. She obtained her private pilot’s license for light aircraft in 1994 with a view to becoming a wildlife vet. In 2003 she spent a year trailing government wildlife vet Dr Chris Foggin around on a voluntary basis. This led to a Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) funded project in which she and Founder Trustee Keith Dutlow tested 2,000 cattle for various diseases in a remote section of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA).
She has since worked with Keith, both in the wildlife arena and as co-director of Medi-Vet. She was assistant to the Chairman on the Zimbabwe Trans Frontier Conservation Area (TFCA) Programme Conservation and Veterinary Subcommittee for three years. She sits on the Animal Welfare Legislation Steering Committee, a committee struggling to upgrade the Animal Welfare legislation in Zimbabwe.