Kate Els Rhino Notching Pilanesberg-5
Latest See&Do South Africa

‘Notch’ your average morning – rhino notching in Pilanesberg

I am so excited that I can finally talk about my rhino notching experience on this blog! I got asked to write this story for Toyota Connect originally and the feature ran in their January issue. I wanted to hold back on posting this so that the story had a chance to ‘breathe’ in print before I made my post live.

At the last minute, I was asked to join a group of vets, conservationists and park rangers in the Pilanesberg National Park to document the process of rhino notching. I went along not knowing much of what would happen, which made the surprise all the more incredible!

In this post, I’ll explain what rhino notching and why it’s neccessary, cover my own personal experience with this mission, and share the incredible photos that I had the chance to capture while out in Pilanesberg.

Firstly, what exactly is rhino notching?

While the term seems rather ambiguous, it isn’t really. Rhino notches are one of the easiest methods for rangers to use to identify a certain rhino in the wild.

Small notches are made in a unique pattern along the edges of a rhino’s ears so that they can be identified from a distance. This way, rangers on vehicles, or flying overhead in helicopters, can quickly spot and determine one rhino from another.

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If you look on the ears of this rhino calf, you’ll spot the notches, the shape and position are what makes them unique for each rhino.

Notching animals is not a new practice, but it has become a very important one with rhinos. With their species under extreme threat from poaching, notching helps rangers and conservationists monitor each animal more closely. By recording each rhinos habits and patterns, they are far more likely to pick up when something is amiss.

Why Pilanesberg National Park?

Rhino notching is certainly not unique in the Pilanesberg National Park. It’s happening on a daily basis across all the southern African countries that have any rhino populations, and beyond.

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One of the dedicated Rhino Protection Unit’s vehicles in the Pilanesberg National Park.

The majority of South African rhinos that are being poached are from the Kruger National Park, but as demand for rhino horn has increased in recent years (here’s an interesting read on this), poachers have had to move on from Kruger and look to other national and private reserves to try and meet this demand. Pilanesberg is unfortunately one of these parks.

The rangers, vets and conservationists at Pilanesberg are working tirelessly to protect their stock of rhino, with regular sweeps and rhino notching forming part of this operation.

Heartbreak and inspiration

With a whirring helicopter complete with a skilled wildlife vet on board, and us following in a game drive vehicle, we set off…

A 5am wake-up saw us bundled into vehicles after an enthusiastic brief detailed what was about to go down: we would be tracking a white rhino through the park so it could be notched, its horn would be microchipped, and the veterinary team would make sure the rhino was healthy and inject some antibiotics.

As we headed into the park, trundling slowly after the heli, the sky darkened and fat drops started to fall from the sky. Rangers nervously radioed between themselves: grey weather doesn’t make it easy to spot grey rhinos, would we even find one today?

Heading deeper and deeper into the park, after stopping to pop on some ponchos obviously, the radio bleeped and the pilot sent directions to the block he was hovering above. A rhino cow and her baby had been found.

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Waiting for word from the pilot.

It was GO time!

This is the only time that I will travel at nearly 100km an hour in a national park (highly illegal otherwise). Our convoy picked up speed, and a few curious park visitors, on our course to the mama rhino.

Stopping only to take off the heli doors (so the vets could get a clear shot with the dart gun), the rangers bore down on the mama rhino who had started to run with her little one. Understandably scared for her life and that of her young. This was the start of my heartbreak, to be honest. You could sense her bewilderment as the heli circled over her and darted her baby.

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I did find it hysterical how the doors just got left behind in the park, a few kilometres away from where the rhino was spotted. Can you spot the curious zebra onlookers?

It was only on the second turn that the vet could dart the cow, and by this time, her baby had started to grow sluggish. The rhino cow panicked, willing her baby to keep moving, and in the end, deserting him to try and run on by herself.

I’ll stop here to say that it is one of the hardest things I’ve had to watch. And I only got through this without screaming, by reminding myself that I was with the good guys. Similarly, the irony was not lost on me, that we as humans are the problem to begin with, and the very reason this has to be done at all.

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These tracker dogs rode along for the operation, although they weren’t needed. They’re both highly trained to help park rangers in their duties.

The rhino cow made it about an extra 40 metres before she too succumbed to the heavy tranquilliser. At this point, the chopper had landed and let out the vet. His team were quick to jump into action, securing the baby rhino, while he calmly approached the mother.

After a few minutes, the rhino cow dropped onto her hindquarters and then lay herself down. At this point, the vet called on his team to blindfold the rhinos and put cottonwool into their ears. This dulls their senses and keeps them calm during the procedures.

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Making sure mama rhino is okay.

It’s quite incredible to witness this all happening. The team working here do everything within their power to make sure the rhinos are subjected to the least amount of stress during this ordeal. Once both rhinos were near unconscious, the vets walked the baby over to its mom, so they could at least sense each other when they would wake up a little later.

The rhino cow had already been notched, but her baby got his notches, while vets worked to chip horns, inject antibiotics and vitamins and check the condition of these prehistoric-looking beasts.

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The cow had to be shifted off her one side so she’d be able to stand up easily when she came to.
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The baby rhino being walked to lie side-by-side with its mother.

At this point, our overwhelmed group of onlookers had the chance to approach the rhinos and actually touch their skin and view them up close. I have tried so many times to describe the sensation I felt right then: it’s a mix of awe, and admiration and deep, deep sadness, not an easy feeling at all.

We had just a few minutes to observe the pair, and then the vets signalled that it was time to wake these sleeping giants up and let them get on their way. Each was injected with a cocktail to wake them, while we waited patiently on the game drive vehicles.

The rhino calf was first up and about, at first clearly groggy and then looking for its mother. The cow was taking much longer to get up, and the rhino calf began to panic.

It was at this point that my heart completely split into two pieces.

The sad and desperate yelps of the little rhino were nothing short of tragic. It butted its head against the body of its mother as tears slipped down my cheeks. You can’t help but imagine what rhino young go through in the wild when their mothers are poached and hacked apart for their horns. It is horrifying to think of.

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The rhino calf, tired and confused, lay his head against his mother in a bid to get her up.

The yelps all blended into each other and finally, we let out a collective breath, as the mother began to stir. At first, she struggled to stand, pushing herself up with her front legs and then falling repetitively, but after a few minutes, she was up.

As soon as she got her bearings, she darted off into the thick, baby in tow.

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Disappearing into the bush.

For me, this was a very difficult story to cover. The weight of trying to convey how important this cause is would weight heavy on any writer, but I have to try add my voice to the cause. I wrote this blog in pieces and shed tears when I did, thinking back to this day.

These are majestic and gentle creatures, and the demand for their horn is based on unfounded myths and fuelled by greed and prestige. As South Africans, we are acutely aware of this problem, but maybe if we all just shared our stories and knowledge on a regular basis, we can spread this message further than it has ever gone?

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This horn belongs right here, on this rhino, and nowhere else…

Travel & food blogger helping adventurous South Africans find their next escape.

Comments (6)

  • Thank you for sharing this, your story moved me to tears as well, imagining the rhino calf bewildered and scared made my heart ache. But you are so right, this happens all too often when poachers get their hands on these incredible animals. Thanks for highlighting this.

    • Thanks Sarah! I think in a lot of ways. we’ve become desensitised to the poaching, but seeing this angle of it was horrific.

  • Great article. 05h30 in the morning and I am wiping tears off my cheeks, while enjoying my coffee.

    • Ah Debs, it was so heartbreaking!

  • Well done Kate; this has to be one of the best posts and an amazing experiences that you have shared with all of us, I could really feel your experience through your words!

    • Thank you Andrew for the kind words. I’m so glad to finally share it, despite being such a tough subject to talk about.


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