A Backhoe Frees a Black Rhino

Wildlife managers at an African game reserve dig out a critically endangered animal trapped in a mud pit.
(Photo: Simon Naylor)
Nov 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal region has been mired in a prolonged drought that has devastated crops and livestock, and spawned water shortages.

Even critically endangered rhinos are dealing with the shrinking water supply.

At Zululand’s Phinda Private Game Reserve, a staff member patrolling the grounds stumbled upon a black rhino mired in mud in the center of what used to be a watering hole.

With the drought, watering holes scattered across the 58,000-acre reserve are drying up, creating dangerous mud pits.

“This water hole was favored by this particular black rhino bull,” said Phinda conservation manager Simon Naylor. “I am not entirely sure how he ended up in the middle of this muddy water hole. On this particular day there was a little surface water, and I think he could smell it and tried to get to it and got stuck in the process.”

That left Naylor and his staff to try and figure out how to get a one-ton animal out of the center of a mud pit. They couldn’t reach the rhino with a rope because the mud was too thick, and they didn’t want to get too close to the bull either.

“Our options to get him out were very limited; black rhino are big and potentially dangerous animals,” Naylor said. “We thought of darting him and giving tranquilizers or sedatives but were concerned that he might then lower his head and drown in the mud.”

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Then Naylor decided to get out the heavy machinery and dig the rhino out.

“We were fortunate that the base of the water hole was hard and we could advance with the machine and not get stuck ourselves,” he said.

After about two hours of digging—and dealing with an angry rhino wondering why a metal version of itself was invading its space—the team was able to free the animal. Naylor said the rhino appeared unharmed when it was finally out of the mud, walking on its own into the bush.

Typically in these situations, Phinda game managers would allow for nature to take its course, but with black rhinos so close to extinction, every animal counts.

“In the last few years, we lost six rhinos to poachers,” Naylor said. “Poaching has left no one unscathed and is unrelenting.” It’s also on the rise. South Africa lost more than 1,215 rhinos to poaching in 2014—a 21 percent increase over the previous year—and an estimated 1,000 have already been poached in 2015. Zululand, where the Phinda reserve is located, has lost 104 rhinos so far in 2015, and close to 4,500 rhinos have been killed in Africa since the surge in poaching hit in 2008.

(Photo: Simon Naylor)

“The poaching is been carried out by well-organized syndicates and multinational organized crime,” Naylor said. “We are fighting this on all levels—on the ground, in the courts, and across borders. We have to be organized and have to show a strong defense through well-equipped and trained field rangers, reward systems, informer networks, and by making use of various technology to combat the threat.”