Black and white rhino are at their peak condition at the end of the rainy season, and that makes it the best time for the Malilangwe Trust to perform their annual rhino ear-notching programme. A system of ear-notches is used to uniquely identify each individual rhino. The notches can be seen from afar which allows the security team to monitor the rhinos without disturbing or stressing them.
Members of the wildlife management team take to the sky in a helicopter to search out mother rhinos that have un-notched calves. Once spotted they fly in close and dart the calf. Via radio communication with an expert ground team, consisting of vets, ecologists, scouts and assistants, they direct them to the spot where the anesthetized calf is lying. The ground team jump to work by clearing any impeding vegetation around the calf, supplying it with oxygen, spraying water to keep it cool, monitoring its temperature, breathing and heart rate, as well as taking research data from it. The operation is carried out quickly yet calmly to eliminate as much stress as possible for the calf – even its ears and eyes are blocked and covered during the procedure.
Surgical clamps (they look similar to scissors – see the photo) are placed on the ears in the predetermined specific notch pattern. These stop the blood flow and allow the notch to be cut from the ear. Once bleeding has stopped and any minor wounds are treated the area is cleared and the vet administers a reversal drug. This reversal acts quickly and the calf can be on its feet again and reunited with its mother within seconds. (The un-darted mother stays in the area but usually doesn’t approach the scene of the operation.)
Daily sightings of individual rhinos, identified by their notches, are recorded and collated by research technicians who capture the data into an animal population database. The data is queried to produce reports that guide management decisions. The Malilangwe Trust’s rhino range expansion programme has been very successful, with numbers of both species growing substantially from their founder populations. The programme’s goal was to repopulate the reserve with rhinos, and contribute further to conservation by using rhinos that would extend the reserve’s ideal carrying capacity, to start new populations elsewhere. For the first time, in 2015, the opportunity arose to move a small number of black rhinos off the reserve to restock a reserve in Botswana. Singita Pamushana, the Malilangwe Trust’s tourism partner, is one of the few places in the world able to offer guests the opportunity of seeing the full spectrum of African wildlife, including black and white rhinos, in a well-protected, balanced, wild and natural ecosystem.