Yes, I understand “darting hunts” place value on the animal, and this is critical. Even so, I have had reservations. There is risk to the animal, which seems acceptable for necessary purposes such as collaring or for medical necessities…but seems questionable if the only real purpose is to get one’s picture taken. Of course this is almost a moot point right now.
The new wave of rhino poaching threatens the almost miraculous recovery of the southern white rhino, and once again places the black rhino at risk. As direct results, there are now fewer surplus rhinos available for hunting, and the rules for darting have changed dramatically in both South Africa and Namibia. Today rhinos can only be darted out of necessity (whether for management or medical reasons), and a veterinarian must administer the sedative. With current poaching losses nearly offsetting gains, these are not inappropriate moves; all conservationists, including we hunters, must understand that rhinos are once again a fragile resource.
That said, loss of darting hunts removes value from the animals. The recovery of the white rhino and the salvation of the black rhino in both Namibia and South Africa were based largely on the opening of private land to both species. This is because both countries have limited parks and reserves (with limited resources), and almost unlimited potential habitat on private lands. Dr. Ian Player, former head of Natal Parks and the man who is credited with almost personally saving the southern white rhino was himself not a hunter, but he became extremely pro-hunting because the potential for eventual hunting opened up lands for “his” rhinos. I was fortunate to interview him shortly before his death last year, and he brought this point home again: The white rhino was saved by hunters because they placed value on the animal and opened up new habitat.
Today private lands are even more important because they offer a better chance to protect the animals from poachers…but it’s a pragmatic world, and the only reason rhinos have proliferated on private land is because of potential revenue, primarily from hunting. With reduced surplus and almost no darting, where does that revenue come from? And how can private landowners afford to offer the rhino the ever-escalating protection it must have?
Just maybe there is an intermediate solution. Rhinos are surprisingly fragile creatures, susceptible to disease and infection. From a private landowner’s perspective, they are extremely valuable livestock that must be cared for. In July of this year, my friend Sean Scott of Scott Outdoors invited us to participate in a “veterinarian darting” at Otjiwa, W.P. Barnard’s place in north-central Namibia. Managing a good herd of southern white rhinos, Barnard had rhinos that were overdue for darting for inoculation, tracking chip implant, and so forth. The rules were clear: The veterinarian, in this case Dr. Mikhail Lambert Roux, who has darted hundreds of rhinos on both public and private lands, would fire the sedative dart. The “hunter” could precede that with a “vitadart”—non-threatening vitamins and medications—making a stalk to close range and “shooting” the rhino with the dart gun.
Honestly, I was skeptical, and have been skeptical of this “faux-hunting” since it began some years ago. But I come from a different place; I shot my one and only rhino in a free-range situation more than 30 years ago. Times are different now. For several years Donna has wanted a close encounter with a rhino to complete her “big five.” Hunting one is out of the question, and it seemed the darting hunts were as well…so this was an opportunity for her, and also a chance for me to observe and see if my skepticism was well-founded. In fact it was not!
Donna and I participated in two “veterinarian dartings,” one as pure observers, the second with Donna administering the vitadart. Both were exciting, but hers was heart-stopping. We tracked “her” rhino for several hours, eventually finding it bedded in thick thorn. At this point I had to hang back a bit, heart in my mouth, while the “hunters” crept in. She fired at 18 yards, placing her “shot” (literally!) perfectly. Dr. Roux followed with the sedative, and in a few minutes the rhino was asleep.
For numerous medical reasons there is a sharp time limit on how long the rhino should be sedated before the antidote is administered. With both rhinos I was amazed at the care and confident speed with which Dr. Roux worked. DNA samples were taken, the chip was implanted, inoculations were administered, and only then a couple of quick pictures were taken. Then the antidote was injected and the entire team cleared to a safe distance. Awakening was sudden and complete, from full stop to full start, and then the rhinos lumbered off, seemingly no worse for wear. Much to my surprise it was actually a marvelous experience and, as they say in the movies, “no animals were injured in the making of this film.”
Barnard’s Otjiwa farm is a very large property, but like all private lands it is not unlimited, nor, realistically, is any other habitat that holds rhinos today. In a perfect world, to ensure health and productivity, rhinos should be darted for veterinary purposes at least every couple of years. But it’s a very expensive operation. A helicopter is essential so the team can access the rhino the instant it goes to sleep, minimizing down time and thus risk. The vet himself is mandatory, along with support. Most landowners, already paying for enhanced security for their rhinos, cannot afford this level of care.
So who is to pay for it? As usual, it can fall to us crazy hunters, who are willing to pay for the privilege of a close encounter with a rhino. I cannot speak for the South African authorities, but the Namibian game department has approved “veterinarian darting” as described herein. It has the potential to not only fund essential care for these animals, but to place continued value on them. Trust me, the poachers place so much value on rhino horn they are willing to risk their lives to obtain it. Altruism and good intentions are not enough; in order to combat poachers we—hunters, landowners, game managers, range state governments—must find ways to place equal value on the rhino’s survival. Veterinarian darting is hardly a complete answer, but it could help.–Craig Boddington