Hi-tech help for rhino

2014-10-22 00:00

A WHITE rhino yesterday underwent a re-enactment of the ordeal when she was darted, drugged and dehorned by poachers at Tala Private Game Reserve at Eston.

Only this time, the purpose was to protect Mpilo and the reserve’s other four remaining white rhinos from the future threat of poachers.

Mpilo’s survival against all odds earned her her name, which means “life”, said head ranger Divan Vermaak.

Mpilo overcame the poachers’ drugs after an antidote was quickly administered by a vet.

Yesterday’s efficient and humane darting exercise enabled wildlife veterinarian Ryan van Deventer and his team to fit the latest GPS tracking device, in the form of a foot collar, onto the feet of each of the remaining five rhinos. This will ensure their every move can be monitored 24 hours a day.

The tracker is the brainchild of KwaZulu-Natal conservationist Victor Hugo, who designed and manufactures the hi-tech device at his wildlife sanctuary in Ashburton.

The trackers were sponsored by Illovo Sugar (South Africa), which has a mill in Eston.

Hugo said the foot collar, weighing just 800 grams, is designed with the rhinos’ comfort in mind.

The specially chosen materials ensure it won’t rub or injure the feet and won’t hinder the animal’s natural movements.

Vermaak hailed the GPS system, which makes it possible to have “eyes” on the rhinos every minute of the day and night.

“If a rhino starts running, takes a nap or moves towards undesirable territory, we’ll know and the anti-poaching unit can spring into action to counter any threats.”

Members of the unit who are deployed permanently in the reserve said their lives will be made much easier by the new technology.

Till now they’ve used a VHF transmitter system to keep track of the rhinos, but at night and in hilly terrain this is difficult.

Vermaak said the unit can now respond to a poaching threat “within minutes”.

This is close to his heart since he experienced the horror of the brazen attack by poachers on May 17 in broad daylight. He recalls he was within 500 metres of the area where poachers darted, drugged and dehorned the three rhinos that morning.

A wedding party was in full swing and the reserve was already full of visitors.

To date no one has been arrested.

As Van Deventer aimed his dart gun at Mpilo’s rump from a game truck yesterday these events played on everyone’s minds.

But the experienced team moved in quickly, blindfolded Mpilo, stuffed socks into her ears to minimise noise, and with minimal stress, fitted the tracker.

Within half an hour the antidote was given and she staggered back to her feet, none the worse for wear.

The drama was repeated with each of the other rhinos, some proving more difficult to handle and having to be darted from a helicopter. In the space of five hours all five rhinos had been fitted with their new tracking devices.

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