Did you know that you don’t have to kill a rhino for its horns? For an elephant’s tusks, you do, but not for rhino,” says Les Carlisle, andBeyond’s conservation manager. We’re speeding along a dirt road in the Phinda Private Game Reserve, the safari company’s 56,800-acre flagship reserve in northeastern South Africa, and the dense bush has given way to open grassland and a deep, overcast sky. In front of us, a truckload of young volunteers is hurtling toward a helicopter that’s diving and darting in the distance. I catch sight of a mass of gray flesh trotting along the same road some 20 feet ahead. Within minutes, it comes to a stop, and us with it. The two-ton white rhino begins losing her bearings; she sways right to left, her front hoof reaches out for a step that isn’t there, and eventually, she comes to her knees. It’s a heart-wrenching sight, even before the hard-to-watch part we’ve been prepared for. But this feeling dissipates as soon as the teams are on the ground.
From the helicopter emerges pilot Harry Hensburg, who flew Prince Harry during Malawi’s elephant translocation two years ago, ecological monitor Charli De Vos, and veterinarian Mike Toft, who, moments before, was hanging out of the chopper with dart gun in hand. The team quickly performs a range of tasks, injecting the sedated rhino with a counteractive agent to help stabilize her breathing; applying a blindfold and earplugs so that she’s less affected by external stimuli; and adjusting her legs so that they don’t fall asleep. My group is invited to help the team take blood, tissue, and hair samples that will populate a database at the University of Pretoria, a resource for researchers seeking to match horns found in Vietnam and China to rhinos poached in the area. Then comes the hard part: Toft begins the dehorning, carefully positioning his chain saw to cut right above the horn’s growth plate. An antidote to the tranquilizer is injected and, within a few minutes, she’s off, a little disoriented maybe, but otherwise okay. As I examine the sawed-off piece in my hand, I notice how it splits at the edges, revealing the strands of human-like hair that it’s made of. All of that, for this?
AndBeyond began dehorning rhinos three years ago as a way to deprive poachers of their bounty. “It felt like losing the war,” says Carlisle of the practice. “But it was the only way to take away the reward for poachers.” Since the start of their rehabilitation 27 years ago, the reserve has built up anti-poaching units and implanted microchips to enable radio telemetry, but found those measures insufficient. The spike in demand for rhino horn, coupled with shrinking numbers of black and white rhinos elsewhere on the continent, have made the growing population at Phinda more susceptible in recent years. But, since starting the dehorning, they’ve only lost seven to illegal killing. In fact, the growth has been so great that the reserve has been acting as a source for translocation of rhinos to Botswana through the Rhinos Without Borders program. A collaboration with fellow safari operators Great Plains Conservation, the initiative has moved 87 rhinos to date.
Witnessing a rhino dehorning, tagging, or ear notching is now among the many activities that make up the new Phinda Impact Journey, a seven-day itinerary that takes guests behind the scenes to show how the reserve is managed and its conservation initiatives carried out. In addition to one remaining scheduled date for 2019, in November, and two next year, guests of andBeyond’s 16-suite Forest Lodge and the Phinda Homestead can also request the itinerary for private groups.