The drive to protect our rhinos

Toyota has put its support firmly behind rhino conservation and, in recognition of World Rhino Day on 22 September, we share the brand’s involvement in an emotional but successful recent dehorning project.

Photographs: John Thomson, Future Toyota

We have all seen and heard the stats Africa’s rhino population is in danger, declining at a rapid rate. In fact, according to the World Wildlife Organisation, of the half a million rhinos that roamed Africa and Asia freely at the beginning of the 20th century, fewer than 30,000 are left in the wild.  

Toyota is involved in several conservation initiatives, but the rhino dehorning project is especially close to Future Toyota Vice-President John Thomson’s heart. “My passion is photography, and I’ve always had a special affinity for rhinos. I think the gravity really set in when my granddaughter was born.” As John sorted his photos on his laptop one day with his granddaughter on his lap, he wondered if her child or grandchild would ever see a rhino in the wild. “That’s what drives my passion. We are here now, and we can do something about it,” he says. 

And making a difference and ensuring a lasting impact is exactly what Toyota is doing with the rhino initiative. 

Toyota supports Rhino Conservation 

We joined the project team at an outreach to Pilanesberg National Park recently and the experience was so much more than we could ever have imagined. It had it all: thrilling “high-speed chases”, adrenaline, dust and, of course, tears… a whole bunch of emotions I wasn’t prepared for!

“That’s what drives my passion. We are here now, and we can do something about it,”

Future Toyota Vice-President John Thomson

Arriving for what Toyota’s very own eco warrior, Manager of Internal Communications Karen Strever, cryptically described as a dehorning project, we weren’t sure what to expect. Unsure of what lay ahead, we took our place in the Toyota Fortuner 4×4 AT VX en route to the Pilanesberg. John met us at the Black Rhino Gate, clearly ready and excited for what was to come. Midway through our briefing, there was a crackling on the radio and the atmosphere was instantly charged. We needed to follow them and fast!  

The animal is located, darted, and immobilised by a veterinarian from a helicopter.

Next thing we knew, we were in the thick of things. Adrenaline pumping and trying to follow John’s Land Cruiser double cab on the dusty tweespoor road, I noticed a helicopter in the air. We were chasing the chopper that was chasing the rhinos to dart them. Exhilarating does not even come close to what we experienced and there was a stunned silence in the vehicle as we stopped abruptly. Barely 20 metres into the field, we witnessed what can only be described as orchestrated: people acting with military precision, collecting data and securing the hero of this adventure a wild white rhino.  

This was the closest I had ever been to one in the wild and I was overcome with emotion. John called me to feel the fold between the rhino’s rump and its rear legs. It was warm and soft in such contrast to its tough outer layer. Emotions boiled up inside me and I gave in to the tears.   

I was brought back to reality by a buzzing sound and as I looked to my left, I saw the vet starting to saw off the horn. Within minutes it was all over. We had dehorned our first rhino of the day. The team woke the giant and less than 10 minutes later, from the safety of the vehicles, we watched him saunter off while the team captured the data and marked and documented the horn. Before we knew it, the radio crackled again. The next rhino had been found and darted and the adrenaline flowed all over again.  

At our second stop, it was a female rhino being dehorned, but there was slight panic as she had a calf that had run off. The team kicked into overdrive as mom and calf needed to be reunited. The helicopter was back in the air in seconds, heading in the direction of where the calf was last seen.  

It wasn’t long before the calf was kicking up dust on the road towards us, the pink fluff of the dart visible on her back. She finally went down about 20 metres away and the team manoeuvred her onto a stretcher to carry her to the waiting helicopter. Within minutes, the 120kg baby was strapped onto the back seat and the chopper set off to reunite mother and calf.  

A calf being reunited with its mother on a rhino dehorning expedition.

Even after witnessing the darting of six rhinos, I was still in awe of what was unfolding before me, and the incredible work done behind the scenes by these passionate conservationists. As we prepared to leave, John asked me: “Have you hugged a rhino today?” He gestured me closer, and I slowly kneeled beside this incredible animal, wrapping my arms around its enormous body. My first hug of a rhino. It was a moment that will be cherished for a lifetime.   

The Pilanesberg Approach 

* Supplied by Pilanesberg National Park and North West Parks Board

Both the white and black rhino species have adapted extremely well to the Pilanesberg Nature Reserve, making this park an important sanctuary for South Africa’s rhino population. In fact, the repopulation programme in this area has been so successful that the excess from both species have been used to re-establish new populations across southern Africa. 

The rhino dehorning project is supported by Toyota

Over the years, the procedure of trimming the horns has been developed into a detailed protocol with almost no risk to the animal. It has been proven that the risk of loss of an animal, as well as injuries or improper removal of the horn, is eliminated when it is conducted by a qualified and experienced veterinarian.  

The animal is located, darted, and immobilised by a veterinarian from a helicopter. When the animal is down, it is located by the ground team in the shortest possible time, the eyes and ears are immediately covered, and its condition immediately monitored. The cutline on the horns is marked, and they are cut very close to the base with an electric wood saw. The stump is then rounded with an angle grinder to remove all excess horn. The whole operation takes fewer than 15 minutes, followed by the team withdrawing from the animal. The rhino is woken up by the vet and strolls off, slightly disorientated, but completely healthy and strong without any injuries. 

The successful rhino dehorning project is supported by Toyota.

There are fears that horn trimming may have an impact on the behaviour of the animals, specifically in terms of defending territories and exerting dominance over inferior bulls. However, data from the Zimbabwe Lowveld Conservancies shows that trimmed rhinos are as likely to retain territories as horned ones.  

It needs to be acknowledged that a rhino’s horn is its primary defence mechanism. The bulls use it to defend their territory and dominance, and cows to defend their calves from predators and bulls. For this reason, all animals in a population need to be trimmed in the shortest possible time to prevent horned rhinos from displacing or injuring trimmed ones. However, possible ecological or behavioural problems associated with horn trimming can be justified against the imperative of keeping the rhinos alive. 

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