Finishing the big five: a rhino hunt would be the culmination of a dream that the author never thought would be fulfilled.
My hunting career has sure far exceeded anything I could have ever imagined when I was a young boy dreaming of hunting exotic locales across the globe. I never thought I would step foot on Mother Africa's soil. That happened fifteen safaris ago for the first time, and one thing led to another, and I have been afforded and blessed with some opportunities that I would have been afraid to even dream of twenty years ago.
I started hunting with Jumbo Moore and Kambako Safaris in 2011, and my trip this year will make five in a row with them. In their Niassa area in northern Mozambique, I was fortunate enough to take a nice male leopard and a nine year-old black-maned lion, and a follow up trip to southern Zimbabwe produced a sixty pound elephant and a giant croc by the end of 2013. I had taken six of Africa's dangerous seven, but a rhino was definitely out of the question for me, and my very limited budget.
Fast forward to 2014, and Kambako Safaris formed a partnership with Chapungu Safaris Africa, who have a huge concession simply called Kalahari Oryx in the Northern Cape. They have both black and white rhino, and though virtually all "green" dart rhino hunts had been shut down in South Africa, Jumbo told me there might be an opportunity there.
Some officials at Northern Cape Nature Conservation were in favour of dart hunts and saw the benefit to rhino conservation from funds raised through such hunts, but they had seen abuse of the system in the past and wanted to make sure any possible hunts in the future were conducted 100% according to regulations. So, in 2014 they issued two "experimental" permits, and I ended up with one of them with the help of Jacques Hartzenberg of Chapungu.
The hunt was for the purpose of taking blood and DNA samples of a bull rhino at Kalahari Oryx that had never been darted and to put this information into the national rhino database, and we would also implant microchip tracking devices in his horns and body. This was not a case of going out to dart a rhino just for the photo op, there were scientific reasons behind the event.
South Africa is building a database of rhinos with both blood and DNA so they can be tracked if poached, sold or moved, and it will also be important for an understanding of genetic diversity when breeding rhinos. By knowing genetics and genealogy of the rhino population, breeders and conservationists can make sure to bring in new genetics to current populations, etc.
A representative from Nature Conservation as well as a very experienced veterinarian met us at Kalahari Oryx Lodge and gave me an orientation on how the hunt would work.
I would go out on foot with my PH Nicolai Raubenheimer, and the Nature Conservation representative, find and stalk the rhino, and then hopefully I could shoot it with a dart gun. My dart would have a mixture of vitamins and a calming drug, but would not contain the actual sedative that would "knock him out". A few minutes after my darting, the plan was for the vet to be flown into the area via helicopter, and he would follow the bull up and administer the final sedative so he could be sure it was all done properly and minimize any risk to the rhino.
Jumbo accompanied me on the hunt as well, and we had a great time at the range while I was learning to shoot the dart gun. It was powered by a CO2 canister, and you dial up the power depending on yardage. We shot it with water-filled darts, and everyone had a few good laughs as I struggled to get it all down properly. It was not super accurate, but I just had to hit the big part!
We found the rhino after a couple of hours of driving around and following tracks. It was quite windy out, and he seemed to be on the move with a purpose, and we just could not catch up with him. We crossed a number of small bushy hills in chase, but he was marching at a pace we could not keep up with.
We went back to the trucks and decided to drive some roads out in front of where he had been headed, hoping to cross his tracks and locate him. The day was warming, and we expected him to be looking for shade.
It was mid-day before we located him again in some scattered bush, and we made our way slowly toward the bull as quietly as possible. Keeping the wind in our faces, we literally crawled from bush to bush trying to get within thirty yards of the giant that became more intimidating with every yard we covered.
When we were at seventy yards, he turned in our direction, and I could see his nice front horn. This really complicated things as we tried to move closer with him facing us. Whenever he moved his head, we scrambled ahead as far as possible. Finally we reached some bush that barely hid us, and there was nothing but open ground between us and the grey hulk.
Nicolai and I talked and decided I should shoot for fifty yards, so I turned the dial on my dart gun accordingly, and I stood up to clear the brush. The bull squared off on me, and I admit that the little air gun felt pretty small. I centred my crosshairs on his shoulder and squeezed the trigger, but to my dismay, the dart flew much higher than it should have.
It hit home in the rhino's hump, and he turned and charged into the thorns behind him and over the ridge. If I had been three inches higher, I would have missed the three and a half ton brute. After the fact, we realized that it had indeed been only forty yards and not fifty. I had the gun cranked up much too high.
Shortly after the helicopter flew the vet in, and we had the magnificent white rhino bull completely sedated. I will never forget walking up on the huge beast. His body was the size of a cow elephant, and though I have seen quite a few rhinos, and shot this one at a mere forty yards, I was still taken aback by his immense size. I am not sure what I expected, but he was much larger I thought he would be, by a lot!
It was a real honour to be that close to such a magnificent animal and actually be able to touch him. When I moved behind his head, his ears would rotate to follow my noise, and occasionally he would move his massive head. It was a little unsettling, but an experience I will never forget.
Everyone went to work on the bull keeping him calm and cool by covering his eyes and pouring some water on him. His safety and well-being were the absolute priority while he was down. The team let me help with measurements, implanting the microchips and taking DNA samples. They even let me administer the antidote to wake him up.
We all backed off twenty yards or so, and it was a special moment to see him wake up and jump back to his feet. He turned and ambled toward me, and at fifteen yards, up on his feet, he looked gigantic. After a few seconds he turned to his right and trotted off into the Kalahari scrub, and our mission and hunt was complete with the rhino being no worse for the wear.
I got the excitement of stalking a rhino and taking a shot at short distance as well as some nice photos with the bull for a "trophy". The best part is that the rhino is still out there today, and the money and information from such hunts helps to sustain these wonderful animals that might otherwise be extinct. The old saying "where there is value there will be wildlife" could not be more true than in the case of rhinos.
True, these hunts are not the same as killing an animal, but quite honestly, I have no desire to kill a rhino. I could have shot this particular bull a number of times with a rifle before I could get close enough and get the right shot with the dart gun, and regardless of the difficulty, I had an experience like no other on earth. I left that hunt feeling very good, and I know the representative from Nature Conservation was very pleased with the way things went as well.
Hopefully the experimental hunts conducted last year will open the door for more legitimate dart hunts to take place. The scientific data recorded along with the tracking implants are very important for the survival of the species, and a large portion of the money generated from such hunts goes back into rhino conservation. Landowners win, hunters win, but most importantly, rhinos win from these endeavours, and they are just one more way that hunters can continue to be the world's leading conservationists.
Tim Herald is an outdoor writer, TV host and hunting consultant in the US. To contact Tim and have him help set up your next hunting adventure, email him at email@example.com.