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Rhino Darting in South Africa

Only a few years ago, the African rhino, an occasionally overlooked member of the Big Five, was critically endangered, its long, sharp horns a coveted item on the world’s black market. Today, the population of the animal is on the rise in many private reserves, thanks to strict anti-poaching rules (enforced by rangers) and a procedure known as rhino darting, in which rhinos are sedated (via dart guns) and tagged for tracking purposes. Eco-minded safari-goers can experience the latter, an adrenalin-packed conservation program, firsthand at Phinda Private Game Reserve (pronounced pinda) in northern South Africa. For the past few years, the 57,000-acre reserve managed by the eco-conscious outfitter CC Africa, has been leading four-day “Rhino Capture & Research” safaris. For each one, guests accompany vets and rangers in the bush, in search of unidentified rhinos.

The process, occasionally dubbed “green hunting”, is not for the faint of heart. As the name implies, the first part involves shooting the animal (with a muscle relaxant) via a dart gun. Krista Krieger, a New Yorker who participated on one expedition, paints a vivid picture: “we set out in three different jeeps and drove through a herd of about 40 rhinos. The vet would shoot the darts from about 100 feet away. Once the animals went down, we’d run over and insert a GPS tracking device into the rhino’s neck.” From there, as the beast lies immobilized and blindfolded, the vet notches—a procedure that entails cutting a unique number of grooves into the rhino’s ears. Notching is what allows vets to track rhino populations and maintain what is referred to as the reserve’s “optimal number” (once this number is reached, some rhinos are helicoptered into other areas to prevent overgrazing). Reportedly, it’s comparable to the quick sting of getting one’s ear’s pierced.

Though many private game reserves in Africa now implement darting as a means to control local rhino populations, Phinda is the only one that runs darting trips for travelers. The four-day safaris are usually tacked onto longer stays at the property. According to Krieger, a veteran safari-goer who, prior to her darting adventure, had been to the Dark Continent four times: “I’ve seen the stunning plains of Botswana and East Africa. Phinda, though, is just as wild, vast and untouched."

Accommodations comprise six different lodges as well as a mobile camp for those interested in walking safaris. The largest and most indulgent is Getty House, a four-bedroom “villa” owned by Tara Getty (John Paul’s grandson) that comes with a private chef and butler as well as nanny quarters.

More squeamish travelers should note that while the darting isn’t exactly a gentle procedure, there is a happy ending—both in the long and short run. For another participant, the best part was the post-notching period: “the vet yelled ‘antidote’ [and an antidote was injected] and we all scattered. Within minutes, the rhino was up, looking unphased and joining the herd as if nothing had happened.

Published onMarch 18, 2014

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