Rhino Implanted for Research

A rhino from Makutsi Safari Farm was darted and implanted with a radio transmitter on February 18th, and will be the focus of new research by a local organisation. Karongwe Edeni Ecological Research Institute (Keri Research), in conjunction with Makutsi Safari Farm, they darted the rhino on Makutsi/Makgokolo, a 3000ha reserve of prime rhino habitat.

The rhino known as Chip was brought to Makutsi as a youngster with several other rhinos over 20 years ago from the Hluhluwe game reserve. This was to ensure the continued growth of the species, which has until relatively recently been on the brink of extinction. Chip and the other rhinos flourished on the reserve, which now consists of a population of fifteen adults and calves.

Keri Research and Makutsi Lodge decided to dart Chip in order to study more closely the spatial utilisation of rhinos on the reserve. Other data such as breeding and territorial behaviour, and behaviour when in contact with game vehicles will also be collected and analysed.

Chip is now at an age when he is in prime breeding condition, and although not the dominant bull on the reserve he is one of the biggest. Data recorded at the time of darting, which includes measuring the length and circumference of both horns, indicate that Chip's horn is very large with the potential to become exceptional as he matures.

The actual darting went very smoothly thanks to the professional help of many individuals. Dr Peter Rogers was on hand to supervise the procedure, and Gerry MacDonald expertly darted Chip from a helicopter. Karl Weber had the unenviable job of finding and identifying Chip from amongst the other rhino on the day.

Previous attempts to mark Chip with white paint so he could be identi- fied easily from the air had ended in comic disaster. One of the paint filled water balloons had exploded in the Landrover before even getting close to Chip, and the other ended up missing or leaving just a small mark under his chin.

In the end, however, it proved no problem for Karl and the pilot to get close enough on the day to easily identify Chip from the air, and he was quickly found. Several volunteers from both Makutsi Lodge and Keri Research were on hand to help with the technical aspects of the darting.

Rhino need to be kept upright and moved at intervals to keep their massive bulk from cutting off the circulation to their legs, so it took quite a team to roll Chip from side to side to periodically change his position. Damien Fynn from Manutsa Ranch used a portable generator and several drill bits to drill holes in Chip's longest horn for the placement of the radio transmitter.

He drilled a medium sized hole horizontally into the side of Chip's horn for the body of the transmitter, and then had to carefully drill a smaller hole vertically down the length of the horn for the antennae. These holes had to meet up and align perfectly, which was no easy task but executed almost flawlessly by Damien. The holes were then filled with an extremely tough resin that blends in with the horn, and is hardly noticeable afterwards.

Chip was tranquillised throughout the procedure, and was not hurt at all by the drilling in his horn. Rhino horn is made of keratin, a substance found in human hair and fingernails, and there are no nerves inside which could cause any pain. Chip recovered very well from the experience and has been successfully located using radio telemetry on a regular basis since the darting.

Over the next two years data collected and analysed by Keri Research will be used to help in rhino conservation, on this and other small enclosed reserves. Research of this kind is important for the continued growth of such a magnificent species. Chip will not only be a valued member of the scientific community, but should provide his custodians on Makutsi/Makgokolo with great game viewing experiences for many years to come.

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