By the early 1960s there were so many that the Natal Parks Board launched the “Operation Rhino”. A very ambitious project to move rhino from Hluhluwe and imfolozi game reserves to other wildlife protected areas in the country. At the time it was considered that the best thing to do was not to have all your eggs in one basket. This project was either going to be a major success or a massive failure, it also captured the imagination of the world.
The rhino capture methods of the early days were full of problems and involved trial and error. One of the methods successfully used to capture big game in east Africa was to chase them with a vehicle until they tired and then manhandle them before they rope them.
This was clearly not going to be the way a rhino weighing up to 3tons. Dr Harthorn tried various tranquilizing drugs on the rhinos.
These drugs showed promise and it took close to 20 minutes for a rhino to go down after being darted and this gave the Rhino’s time to move vast distances.As a result of the large dosage of tranquilizing drug, the darts used were big and often left wounds on the animals. The first rhino was moved to the nearby Mkuzi game park the operation took the whole day and the rhino sustained injuries while in the crate anddied due to the long day and it’s injuries.
This was the beginning of great things to come and in 1963 a drug called M99 was developed which helped simplify the rhino capture process. The drug was a derivative of morphine which is deadly for humans but worked well on the rhino. Because a smaller amount of the drug was needed the rhino would go down quicker and there was less stress to the animal and it was easier for the ground crew. The wounds caused by the smaller darts were also not so damaging to the animal. The rhinos were darted by rangers on foot or on horseback using gas powered rifles. There would always be other horseman close by in order to guide the rhino away from inaccessible terrain. The rhino was then injected with a antidote and the tranquilized animal would be guided with restraining ropes into a waiting truck. As the years went by and the techniques improved together with better drugs, the number of animals being translocated increased dramatically. In the 1990s the rhino capture teams introduced the use of helicopters to quickly find and dart the animals, with ground crews in radio contact with the pilot and the time it took to get a rhino into a crate and onto truck was drastically reduced with a lot less stress to the rhinos.
In the first few years after the launch of operation rhino over 600 rhino had been translocated to other parks around South Africa. By the year 2000 this number had doubled and rhino were been moved across the South African borders to neighboring countries.