Mission to save black rhinos

Len Maseko

Len Maseko

Somewhere on the fringes of the Kalahari desert in the Northern Cape, a mission to track down the endangered black rhino is ready to roll.

The location is the Tswalu game reserve - home to an exclusive ultra-luxury resort and wildlife inhabiting the desert expanse of more than 100000 hectares.

Tswalu, owned by one of South Africa's wealthiest families, the Oppenheimers, is the largest privately owned game reserve.

Situated about 500km away from Johannesburg, the game reserve is a natural enclave in sharp contrast with the urban concrete jungle. It nestles on the foot of the Korannaberg mountains, which overlook the Kalahari desert.

Gathered at Tswalu are a group of conservationists from Conserve Africa, four editors, and executives from South African Breweries (SAB). The Tswalu trip, sponsored by SAB, is largely aimed at preserving the endangered black rhino by vaccinating and fitting the rhino population with satellite tracking devices to monitor it.

Two rhino calves are earmarked for this operation, which is bedecked with danger because of the fierce protectiveness of female rhinos over their offspring.

The black and white rhinos are endangered species today, thanks to poachers who hunt down the animal for its prized horn. The traffickers sell the horn in Asia, where it is ground into powder to make traditional medicine.

There are reportedly an estimated 14000 white rhinos and 4000 black rhinos in South Africa.

To expedite the Tswalu operation, two teams using game-drive vehicles and a helicopter joined the search on the heels of foot trackers.

As soon as the trackers spot the rhino and its offspring, they alert the follow-up party. The tension and excitement that rents the air is underscored by the eagerness to touch the animal.

During the follow-up operation, the ground team defers to the helicopter team, which darts the offspring to sedate it.

This process lasts about 30 minutes as the helicopter tries to separate the fleeing mum and offspring from each other during a bush-crashing run.

Finally the mother is coaxed by the hovering helicopter to dart off in a different direction, leaving her offspring to its own devices.

The ground team chases after the befuddled offspring, which groggily ambles about the bush until it succumbs to the sedative effects of the dart.

While the animal is in its drug-induced stupor, team members get into action. We quickly huddle around its bulky torso.

"Please, ladies and gentlemen, remember to respect the animal," says Chris Seymour, reminding us of the game-capturing ethics recited earlier. One team gently sticks a temperature-measuring instrument . in the rear end of the animal (yes, it's true).

Yours truly conscientiously gets stuck with his assigned task of putting muffs into the animal's ears while others administer antibiotics, insert a satellite collar in its ear and inject a microchip in its horn.

The ear muffs are to ease stress to the animal, caused by the chase and flurry of activity around it.

With the effects of sedation expected to last for only 20 minutes, the operation is executed at break-neck speed since no one wants to be around when the animal perks up.

Suddenly the offspring rises to his feet - albeit groggily - 10 minutes into the operation, sending all of us scurrying for cover in the vehicles. It rolls back to the ground, however, still weak from heavy sedation.

With 20 minutes up, and everyone safely ensconced in their vehicles, the animal finally regains consciousness. It heaves furiously, charges around, following the human scent before disappearing into the bush.

With the euphoria from the success of the operation swelling, the team repairs for a sumptuous bushveld dinner in the haze of the Kalahari sunset, washed down with a splash of icy-cool cocktails.

In these parts, everything slows down to nature's pace. Tswalu boasts only eight suites, which emphasises its exclusivity. At most, it can accommodate up to 30 guests in suites that abound with the comforts of a world-class villa. Each is furnished with its own fireplace, indoor and outdoor shower, a large bed draped with lace overhead to keep an intrusive fly at bay during a siesta.

A private sun deck in each suite beckons a lazy cocktail on the sofas while overlooking the grasslands stretching beyond the horizon. The same patio is the best vantage point to wallow in the swathe of orange unfurled by the sunset. Against the backdrop of the sunset, silhouetted game grazing on the horizon make for a breathtaking sight.

Solitude amid the wide expanse of the desert infinitely replenishes body, spirit and mind as one tunes into the calmness of nature.