Dr. Heather Robertson, DVM ventured across continents to South Africa in November 2017 to the Thanda Safari Reserve where she was able to assist in the process of protecting highly-poached animals, such as the South African elephant and South African white rhinoceros.
While the Southern white rhino is the least endangered of the living rhino species with 21,077 remaining in the wild, they are listed as near threatened due to habitat loss and illegal poaching. In South Africa alone, poachers kill three or more rhinos per day to feed the demand for horn on the black market.
Robertson worked along the frontlines with staff at the reserve to replace a tracking collar on a matriarch of the “Ghost Herd” of African elephants. The Ghost Herd earned its name from the inability to easily find the herd throughout the 34,500-acre reserve.
“It was a shot in the dark whether we were going to find them that morning,” Robertson said.
The collaring operation consists of a helicopter with only a pilot, wildlife manager and veterinarian circling the property to find the animal. A grounds team is following the helicopter closely and drives up to the elephant if or when the duo in the helicopter find the animal and dart it.
“My favorite part of it was seeing the whole thing come together. With seeing the helicopter pilot, wildlife manager and the vets deal with being out in the open with all the wildlife along with dealing with a multi-ton animal,” Robertson said. “Being there to do all of that in a field setting is the most exciting part for me.”
The team made quick work out of changing out the tracking collar and moved onto the next task at hand, which was to dehorn a rhino to protect it from being killed by poachers.
Robertson was able to help with the dehorning process, which consists of trimming most of the top portion of the horn off, in hopes of deterring poachers from killing the animal to sell the horn. Trimming the rhinos horn is similar to trimming a human’s nails, Robertson said.
“If we clipped our nails at the base it would hurt really bad, but if we just clip our nail routinely, it doesn’t hurt at all,” Robertson said “So it’s the same thing for the rhino horns. They take it off at a level that they don’t cause any pain and hopefully low enough where poachers won’t want to kill the rhino.”
Once the horn is removed, it is stored in a safe, unknown location, so it can be kept and preserved.
Nashville Zoo brings local awareness of the critical status of all five rhino species during its annual conservation concert, Rockin’ for Rhinos and also supports the International Rhino Foundation and LEWA Conservancy through financial contributions.
“We all dream about going where we talk about,” Robertson said. “The people on the ground are the real heroes, trying to save the species. Nashville Zoo is trying to educate and raise money to send back there, so while I was there I wanted to make sure I got that opportunity to see and be a part of it. It was a dream come true.”