Umfolozi Rhino Lift: KwaZulu Natal, August 2013

Sunday, September 15, 2013
Rhino Lift
Bird-Dog Aviation prepares to lift an endangered white rhino to a new location.

Go to the Bird Dog Aviation Rhino Lift Gallery
Click the icon above to view the Bird-Dog Aviation photo gallery of their August 2013 white rhino lift.

by Tosh Ross, Bird-Dog Aviation

During the first week of August 2013, Bird-Dog Aviation airlifted 25 white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) from the wilderness area of the Umfolozi reserve in Zululand, South Africa to predetermined off-loading sites. The reserve is approximately 960 square kilometers in size and has possibly the largest population of White Rhino in the world.

Mission Data Details
The lifting helicopter we use for these kinds of missions is a Tamarack UH-1H "Super Huey" equipped with a Lycoming T53-703 1800 shp powerplant that provides 400 more horsepower than the standard engine. It also has a BLR FastFin with the strakes, as well as Van Horn composite tail rotor blades. In addition, the left hand bubble door and associated provisions make it the ideal platform for this kind of vertical reference work. We also use a Hughes 500 as the "darting helicopter" for advance work in locating and sedating the animals to be airlifted.

Previous airlifts have been used for the more endangered black rhino (Diceros bicornis), which are, as a species, lighter than the white rhino. The larger body mass of the white rhino required the use of a load-weighing system that would enable the helicopter crew to accurately assess the weight of the animals, in order to avoid exceeding the helicopter's hook limit of 1,800KG (4,000 LB). As adult male white rhinos can reach 3,000 KG (6,900 LB), the target animals for this mission were predominantly lighter cow-calf combinations—but this also presented its own set of peculiar challenges. Fortunately, we were able to install a load cell kit from Onboard Systems to upgrade the OEM rotating hook to provide the needed load-weight data.

Mission Kick Off
For these kinds of missions, a typical day starts about dawn when the various teams start to assemble after a light breakfast and a quick check of all the equipment and the weather. The veterinarian uses this time to prepare his darts before getting into the helicopter. After a briefing with all the crew involved, the darting helicopter is the first to get airborne with the pilot, the shooter and possibly one of the game rangers in the rear seat if individual animals are being sought. A system of ear notching is used in the marking and identification of the rhinos, and being territorial creatures it usually doesn't take long before the lifting helicopter gets the call to start up.

Once airborne, contact is made with the other team to get a bearing and distance to the target animal. The initial call to start is normally made only after the tranquilizing dart is in, as it takes roughly six to eight minutes before the rhino goes down. The drug used is called "M99," which has Etorphine as the active ingredient. It is a highly potent synthetic derivative of Morphine and is also fatal to humans—even from a simple scratch or prick of the needle without the antidote being close at hand. In the rhino's case, it takes a much larger dose to sedate the animal. While the use of M99 as a tranquilizer interferes with the animal's natural ability to cool itself down, the cooling effect of the air inflight (about 60 knots) seems to counter this contraindication very effectively.

In the case of the cow/calf combinations, both (or more) animals are darted as quickly as possible so that they all remain in reasonably close proximity to each other after the drugs take effect. In a logistically ideal situation, the primary load would be the lightest; however, in this case the mother goes first for the simple reason that should the weight exceed the helicopter's capacity we would then have to return to the drop-off site and sling the calf back and release both animals again. This is hardly ideal considering the time and cost of the helicopter as well as the stress on the rhinos themselves. The immobilizing drugs also have serious limitations once the antidote has been administered.

The solution lies with the darting crews, who have learned to visually gauge the rhino's weight purely through experience. Without exception, they have never been more than 200 KG out in their estimations. In our case, the heaviest rhino lifted so far came in at 1,740 KG—less than 100 KG from the hook limit. Right here is where the Onboard Systems load cell became the pivotal piece of equipment as without it, we probably would have chosen to err on the side of caution and put the animal back down for release.

Preparing for the Lift
Once the rhino is down, we land as close as possible to the animal to save time and allow the rangers to collect DNA samples and monitor the vital signs while we prepare the strops for the lift. This process usually takes no more than five minutes, but occasionally the rhino goes down in thick bush or in an awkward position—and then all the manpower is needed to get it onto its side. The leg strops are quickly put in place and once the signal is received, the Huey lifts up and waits for the signal to lift. For this particular mission, the total strop length was 47 meters (155 feet) and was comprised of a mixture of Polyester endless round slings, a chain, and an Eye Self-Locking Hook.

Another interesting aspect for this lift is that for the white rhino, we used a fifth strop to support the head by placing it between the two horns and, via a ratchet system, adjusted it before lifting the weight clear of the ground. The reason is that the white rhino, being significantly larger and physiologically different from the black rhino, have difficulty breathing if their head is not supported. It also appears that this fifth strop arrangement had an unintended positive side effect in that it seemed to stabilize the rhino better in flight—so much so that we intend to try it on the black rhino in the next airlift scheduled for October. In hindsight, the use of a remote hook with multiple rhino would certainly have sped things up, but at this stage, it's just another "nice to have" item which we may try in the future.

When everything is going normally, the rhino is then flown to the off-loading site, which in Umfolozi could be up to ten nautical miles and ten minutes away. It is then gently repositioned onto the ground and into the care of another veterinarian and the ground teams. Here the rhino is loaded into a crate and onto trucks for transportation to the bomas (holding pens), or directly to the offloading site on a different reserve. We have also successfully employed this method in another first where the rhino was slung directly from one reserve to another (a 25 mile trip) and released directly into its new home with no "conventional" transport methods being employed at any point.

Preserving a Species
No one is really sure about the maximum time a rhino can be transported in this way, with the physiological stress being the biggest unknown; however, to date we have moved 124 rhinos in this way without a single problem being attributed to the slinging method. The longest trip for a rhino via this method was in 2010 in Namibia, where we ended up nearly 40 miles from the trucks and, with the wind against us and the rhino suspended below the Huey, we were committed to a 30 minute ride to the offloading point. With various improvements in the equipment, we have reduced the turnaround time per rhino to around 25 minutes.

Some people have commented on public forums about the manner in which the rhino are being airlifted, and without question the topic is open to debate. But from personal experience, this method certainly works and the specialist veterinarians in this field are also unanimously in favor of this method. Special mention must be made here of Dr. Pete Morkel, who convinced us to try this unusual method for the first time.

When one considers the ongoing and escalating massacre of these rhino for their horns, my personal opinion is that when you consider the alternative fate that these creatures may suffer and the amount of scientific data that has been collected to substantiate the results, they now have a statistically better chance of survival despite these drastic transport methods. To date, I have personally slung 124 rhino using this method, which at a rough calculation equates to around 150 metric tons of rhino. If one were then to consider the approximate street value of their horns, it would be in the region of 30 million dollars, so it's no wonder they are being targeted so ruthlessly.

It certainly is a privilege to be involved in an operation like this and all credit to the unsung heroes who are the vets and rangers who literally are putting their lives on the line to try and save this magnificent animal from certain extinction.


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