Amber's sacrifice

2011-06-17 00:00

JUNE 18, 1961. Rain poured down in heavy sheets, turning the dirt roads of Mkuze Game Reserve to slippery ribbons of mud and muffling the usual sounds of the bush. Through the deluge, a slow procession could be seen: an unwieldy road grader, towing a large truck covered in mud and bearing a large wooden crate, followed slowly by a collection of Land Rovers and staff vehicles. Their destination was a boggy boma called Nsumu — the temporary home for the very first adult square-lipped rhino to be captured and transported in South Africa.

The journey was the culmination of years of planning by a group of visionary conservationists. In the fifties, two young, orphaned white rhinos had been netted and roped in Umfolozi Game Reserve, and crated to the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria. But it was only some 10 years later, after veterinarian Dr Tony Harthoorn and the staff of the Umfolozi Game Reserve had successfully experimented with anaesthetising the huge creatures with darts from the Palmer capture gun, that plans to move an adult rhino came to fruition.

Moving white rhino from Umfolozi — the only place in South Africa where they had survived in the wild — had become an imperative. Numbers had increased from some 50 animals in 1930, to over 560 in 1959, placing great pressure on the reserve. For the species to prosper, more viable populations needed to be established — until then, one epidemic could have been catastrophic. Mkuze, a relatively short distance away, was an ideal second home.

According to a report written by Mkuze senior ranger Singie Denyer soon after the event: “On June 11, 1961, [Umfolozi] senior ranger Ian Player and Dr Harthoorn arrived with the news of a possible transportation of a square-lipped rhino from the Umfolozi Game Reserve … An extensive tour of [Mkuze] was made in order to locate a suitable site for an enclosure and a spot was finally selected near the Nsumu game-guard camp. Here … we set about the terrific task of erecting the bomas in record time.”

All staff — including myself, a young game ranger at Mkuze at the time — were roped in to complete the job, which required digging two-foot deep trenches in steel-hard ground to hold sturdy wooden poles. The sun blazed down as the work proceeded, until the clouds rolled in, and rain rapidly turned the ground into a quagmire.

Roads also took a hammering. Early on June 17, 1961, five days after the boma building had begun, Singie was woken up to shouts of “Wake up — we’ve brought you a rhino”. From out of the truck parked near the office scrambled the director, John Page, chief conservator in Zululand Peter Potter, senior ranger Ian Player and Dr Tony Harthoorn, all of whom proceeded to tell Singie of their experiences on the soggy road. The truck that was carrying Amber, as our rhino was called, had slid off the road, was bogged down near Ngweni and could not move.

It was only a day later that, thanks to the grader, Amber’s truck was debogged and the exhausted creature arrived at the holding pens. Unloading her crate was a prodigious task. The ground was so sodden that everyone sank ankle deep into the mud, lifting kilograms of black earth every time a foot was raised. We were all pretty exhausted by the afternoon, as none of us had had any sleep for 24 hours. The crate was gradually manoeuvred off the truck, lowered to the ground, and eased up to the boma gate. The animal, however, preferred to stay in her crate, and all efforts to entice her out proved futile. Eventually, we left for a much-needed meal and some sleep.

Early the following morning we returned to Nsumu, again slipping and sliding on the waterlogged roads. There had been almost 100 mm of rain in two days, and it was still coming down. When we got to the boma, we discovered that Amber had left her crate during the night. But sadly, she was far from well. Still stupefied by the drugs, her right shoulder was very swollen and there seemed to be another swelling near her kidneys. She could not walk on her right foot and was having great difficulty moving around the boma in the mud. The journey had taken its toll.

We had great quantities of grass cut and thrown into the boma to give her a more comfortable footing. And while we were delighted to see that Amber had eaten some fodder, she had not yet drunk anything. Still, by the afternoon of June 20 she appeared to be doing well and we all started to hope that the worst was behind us.

But then disaster struck. During the night, Amber had tried to escape, but ended up trapped upon a large fuel drum that had been cut in half to serve as a water container. Its sharp edge had badly lacerated a leg. Too late. We realised we should have dug a depression in the soil for a wallow and filled it with water. Although we managed to form a sling with ropes and manoeuvre Amber out of the trough and into a more comfortable position, we couldn’t get her to drink.

Eventually, a length of polythene water piping was placed in her mouth, down which we carefully poured water from a bucket. She was obviously very thirsty and her plaintive whimperings were heart-rending. Then we were faced with a different problem — having got the pipe into Amber’s mouth, she hung onto it and would not let go. We decided to leave it where it was for another transfusion, and in about an hour’s time, water was again eagerly sucked from the pipe and another 20 to 30 litres disappeared.

We were all pleased that we had at least got Amber to drink and Singie spoke for all of us when he wrote “We rangers were delighted as Amber, our very special charge, had crawled her way deep into all our hearts”.

Yet despite shots of penicillin and Terramycin, it became obvious that Amber was weakening. The weather didn’t help — the heavens opened again and as much as 100 mm of rain fell in two hours. We tried to keep Amber dry by covering her with Singie’s patrol tent, and persuaded her to take a little more food and water. But when we returned to the boma on June 25, we found, to our great distress, that she had died during the night.

A post mortem later revealed that Amber had died from internal injuries, presumably received during the move.

In retrospect, it was something of a miracle that she survived as long as she did considering the trauma of the capture, and the miserable 24-hour delay incurred when her truck slid off the road. It was a sad end for a noble animal.

But her death was not in vain. Valuable lessons were learnt, and during the past 50 years, many hundreds of rhinos have been successfully moved from Umfolozi to new homes in Africa and abroad. (Events associated with the early days of rhino capture and Operation Rhino have been extensively documented by Ian Player and Nick Steele.) The translocation of these animals is now very much a routine operation. Amber’s journey was the forerunner of one of the most important conservation achievements of the 20th century, which saw a major species rescued from the brink of extinction.

As rangers in Mkuze at the time, we were all aware of how privileged we had been to have had a small part in a historic event. It remains one of my most treasured memories.


• Additional reporting by Janine Stephen.

Under pressure

JUST when South Africa’s rhino populations looked secure, a massive slaughter began. South Africa lost 333 rhinos to poachers last year, and 2011 is looking even worse. Figures released by SanParks on June 6 said that 173 rhinos have been killed so far this year – equating to just over one a day. Of these, 120 were poached in the Kruger National Park alone. Twenty suspected poachers have been killed in clashes with authorities, and 122 suspects arrested.

Although in 2009 South Africa was thought to have over 19 000 white rhino, this kind of slaughter is unsustainable. Asian-organised crime syndicates are thought to be behind the growing demand for horns, falsely believed to have medicinal properties. The International Rhino Foundation believes rhino horn fetches up to $55 000 per kilogram, making it more expensive than gold.

See www.stoprhinopoaching. com for information on how to help stop the carnage.


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