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.
I stayed at the Homestead, a private house that debuted in September, following a rebuild. With open-air living spaces and walkways that lead to four bedrooms, the lodge felt like the farmhouse of an individual obsessed with Zulu culture (reed tassel curtains, intricate basketwork, and mud-cloth textiles). And the food, courtesy of Lucky Zikhali, whose sweet humility belies his résumé (he was the private chef to the Getty family), was as exciting and varied as the settings we dined in. There was the lodge’s boma, a lantern-lit, mud- and wood-walled enclosure in the style of those traditionally used as a gathering place for community elders or to hold animals; our bush dinner, which was followed by sleep-out to the sound of hyena and zebra calls; and the Homestead’s dining deck, overlooking a watering hole frequented by nyalas, baboons, and, on one morning, a herd of elephants.
Our guide, Nikki Muller, who reminded me of an overgrown Boy Scout, and our cool and collected tracker, Bernie Mnguni, who grew up in a neighboring community, were a wealth of knowledge, but it’s Carlisle’s presence during every step of the itinerary that makes it so singular. As andBeyond’s second employee, hired back in 1991 (his wife, Lynette, was the first), he was an early proponent of involving the neighboring Makhasa and Mnqobokazi communities in making decisions about the park. “If you’re too hasty and think you know better than who and what you’re trying to help, you’re left with unused buildings and unhappy animals,” says the Swaziland-born, Zulu-speaking Carlisle. What he pioneered at Phinda—translocating game as a means of conservation (he’s moved more than 40,000 animals) and offering livestock-loss compensation for cattle farmers—has become a model for the continent.
While exceptional game viewing and elaborate gin-and-tonic pit stops make up part of the program, the experience doesn’t feel like a spectator sport, but rather direct involvement with important and painstaking work. After setting out one morning to meet with ornithologist James Rawdon, we arrive at a wall of netting dotted with bursts of color. Rawdon and his team are busy untangling birds and taking them back to a station to attach coded metal rings to each bird’s ankle, which helps track the migration patterns, life spans, and diversity of the reserve’s more than 430 species. On that afternoon’s game drive, I notice my group’s previously passive interest in Muller’s bird-call- ing take on new life. We set a goal to identify at least 10 of the 20 “star birds” (those special to the area), either by sight or sound, and I’m soon remembering names, like black-bellied bustard and lemon-breasted canary, that had all seemed to blend together before.
The next day, we meet with Charli De Vos, who describes her work monitoring each species’s populations and the measures in place to keep their numbers sustainable. We learn that the reserve’s carrying capacity for elephants is around 110, because “their destructive habits mean that the park’s plant regrowth can only handle so much,” she says. And we learn that they’ve begun performing partial hysterectomies on female lions to reduce litter sizes to two or three instead of five or six—“prides bigger than five are more likely to attack a cheetah mother and her cubs, put- ting their fragile population at risk,” De Vos says.
Everyone who has been on safari has likely been told that their very presence contributes to conservation (and there’s no denying that), and those who’ve spoken to more than one conservationist will have heard just as many opinions on what works and what doesn’t. As someone who has always thought of safari as witnessing nature taking its course, what I came to realize is that, in today’s world, nature requires constant and active management—and maybe that’s where the truly authentic experience lies. To go on safari and not have an idea of the underlying mechanisms perpetuates misconceptions that no longer seem sustainable. But to go on safari and come out with a deeper understanding of how it all works—well, that seems like a step in the right direction.
On our last day, we join De Vos in tracking, through radio telemetry, a rhino due for translocation. The weather makes it so that we can’t find him, but Mnguni spots five lions napping on a sandy bank. I feel a moment of panic when I think I see a sixth, thinking back to De Vos’s talk on capping prides to five, and worry briefly for the fate of the two cheetah cubs we saw a half hour earlier. But it was just my eyes—or my concerns as a newly aspiring researcher—playing tricks on me. Seven-day Phinda Impact Journeys from $8,790; andbeyond.com.