September is all about Rhino. World Rhino Day is 22 September.

A chance to bring awareness to the plight of these incredible creatures but also an opportunity to celebrate Rhino for all that they are and all that they contribute to our Coexistence.

Starting this Rhino month off with a profoundly sad story from the frontlines in the fight to protect rhino.

It is a crisp Winter morning. People huddle in small groups, moving on the spot and rubbing hands together to generate that little bit of body heat.  Snatches of mumbled conversation hint at what the day entails.  There are humans here from all walks of life.  One heart-rending cause bringing them together today, united in playing their part in a great war that rages in this corner of southern Africa.

The setting is idyllic.  The iconic umbrella-shaped Paperbark Thorn trees dot the landscape in amongst thorny thickets and patches of grasses flaxen-gold with Winter dryness.  The area is surrounded by hills with intriguing rocky outcrops calling out Adventure.  Gorgeous flowering aloes lend spectacular colours to the scene.  The water of the dam is like glass in the still of the cold morning.

If it wasn’t for the sombre mood gripping us all as we contemplate today’s task, it would be an absolutely magical morning in the African bush.

A crackle on a hand-held radio and the message passes through the mingling groups – stand by!  There’s a sudden rush to clamber aboard vehicles and line up, ready for the call to action.  As quickly as it comes, the sense of urgency eases – we are not quite ready yet.  A few people take the opportunity for a last-minute, nervous bush wee.

Then we hear the helicopter.  We don’t need the radio to tell us it is time to go.  Today’s operation has now begun in earnest.  As ground crew we wait, scanning the horizon for the helicopter we can hear approaching.  Before we even spot the chopper in the sky we hear the siren – the first dart is in.  Vehicles gun it down the road, still a bit of tar surface at this location close to the gate.

As we round a bend, there is the helicopter.  So low, but so expertly manoeuvring our first target close to the road for easy access by the ground crew.

Vehicles come to a halt and everyone springs into action.  Like a well-oiled machine every person knows what needs to be achieved – and time is of the essence.  A team pushes, pulls and man-handles the sedated rhino into a safe sitting position for the procedure.  Eyes wide, and breathing heavily, this animal is stressed.

As vitals are checked by the wildlife vet on the ground, a cover goes over the eyes and ear plugs are inserted.  The dart is removed and a blue antibacterial spray applied to the dart site.  A neon pink X is sprayed onto the back of the rhino to ensure that it is not darted again from the sky.  All the while, the man-handling crew mumble sad words of reassurance and pat the back of this enormous and frightened animal, in an attempt at comfort.

There are people with clipboards checking ear notches to correctly identify the individual.  Blood samples are taken.  All of this action has taken only minutes.  Attention is  focused, voices hushed.  The helicopter has moved on to line up the next rhino for today’s traumatic operation.  Then the rattle and brum of a chainsaw begins.  For the next few minutes this aggressive sound overwhelms us all.  Rhino horn shavings spray into the air and onto the ground around the rhino’s face as a few years’ growth is trimmed from both horns, then tagged and bagged.

The signal is given for everyone to head back to the vehicles.  Eye cover and ear plugs are removed and the reverse sedative administered. We all sombrely wait for the rhino to rise to its feet, steady itself and trot away, neon pink X disappearing into the bush. We take a last look and then it is on to the next rhino.

This process is repeated throughout the course of the day.  Sometimes we split into two teams when  two rhino moving together are darted at the same time – the remarkably well-oiled machine I mentioned earlier.

Often two rhinos together means a mother and calf.  If the calf has not already been ear notched for identification this is another procedure that needs to happen. Ear notching involves clipping a part of each ear away in a unique pattern, in order be able to distinguish it from the other rhino on the reserve. It’s a bloody business.

Up to this point I have managed to keep my emotions in check.  On some level, I know what to expect.  But nothing really prepares me for this sensory assault.  During most of the exercise I am fairly matter of fact about it all.  Although, every time the chainsaw starts up, my insides crawl.

The ear notching is the last straw.  The tears just flow.  The person ear notching is a big burly man who focuses on making this operation as quick and clean as possible, gently apologising to the little rhino before each clip.  My heart breaks.

How did we get to this invasive assault on the senses for all involved – rhinos and conservationists alike – as a tool in the rhino conservation arsenal?  And yet, here we are.  I don’t think anyone present for this operation – seasoned ‘de-horner’ or first-time participant – would tell you it is a cure-all.  The reality is that we have no choice but to deploy every tool at our disposal in the great war to save these species from being wiped from our planet forever.

As invasive and heart-wrenching as this procedure may seem, it is unquestionably a kinder option than the brutality poachers use to claim their valuable prize.  Terrible gunshot wounds, hacking at horns while an animal is still alive, leaving orphaned calves, maiming bodies to make a statement or leave a calling card.  It is beyond-words barbaric.  Rhino poachers have lost their humanity.  It IS war, and it is tragic on every level.

This type of activity changes the energy of the entire landscape for a time.  At one point we come across the body of a zebra, still warm, blood seeping from her eyes.  She has just died. A youngish zebra foal is running to and fro near the body, frantically braying its distress. The dead zebra must have been its mother.  Did the zebra panic with the sound of the helicopter and collide with a tree?  Perhaps the rhino being herded by the helicopter ran into the zebra, both panicked by the horrendous situation.  Whatever the reason, collateral damage is a factor in this Story, too.

What a shattering experience.  It has been a complete assault on my senses, and it has taken days to even begin to process my emotions.  However, I feel privileged to have been a part of this life-saving work.  It was so visceral.  I know I can share the desperate rhino plight Story from a place of authenticity now.  And while I felt a profound sadness throughout the whole operation, I was also overwhelmed and encouraged by gratitude for the care and compassion shown by the conservation team we worked with – everyone, from the helicopter pilot, wildlife vets, reserve management, counter-poaching staff, and all the caring hearts in between. Hope floats…. cautiously.

If you are interested in learning more about the rhino dehorning process and supporting the protection of rhino in southern Africa, please check out the work of Project Rhino.