Nothing prepares you for its size, nor the feel of its skin under your hand. I am standing in the early morning sun, in knee-high scrub, in the middle of a game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. Since dawn, we have been tracking — by helicopter and open-topped truck — the beast that now lies unconscious at our feet, blindfolded, its ears stoppered with cotton wool, a dart protruding from its considerable rear.
In the few days since I arrived here, I have seen white rhinos — and even caught a glimpse of the more elusive black rhino — but on each occasion from a distance, safely ensconced in a game vehicle. Now, though, I’m closer than most people will ever be fortunate enough to get to one of these vast animals, courtesy of a remarkable conservation programme which has one aim: to stamp out the illegal trade in rhino horn forever.
To understand what a challenge that is, consider the numbers involved. In 2000, seven rhinos were poached in South Africa; in 2011, that number had risen to a chilling 448. This year, when I visited in early June, the figure already stood at 237; 23 were in KwaZulu-Natal. As if those statistics weren’t horrifying enough, consider also that what the poachers are after — the rhinos’ horn, which they frequently remove by hacking, leaving the animal to bleed to death — is now worth more per ounce than gold. Despite the fact that it has no special properties, it is used in traditional medicines and as an ornament — sometimes, it is even snorted. As useless commodities go, it is worth a hell of a lot of money.
At Phinda, a private game reserve owned by eco-tourism pioneers &Beyond, they take conservation — and rhinos — very seriously. Since 2003, they’ve been ‘notching’ rhinos — a process in which small holes are punched in an animal’s ears to provide a unique identification number; if, subsequently, the contraband horn is seized, it will be possible to establish a chain of evidence that will lead back to the crime scene.
But first, catch your rhino. Funnily enough, it turns out not to be quite as simple as putting a collar on a cat. We have an extensive briefing — including a warning to steer clear of the morphine-based drug used to fell the rhino, which would have a catastrophic effect on a human in as little as a minute — and then get up before first light. A vast team of people has been mobilised, including the intrepid vet who will hang out of a helicopter to shoot the sedative into the rhino once it has been located and the equally skilful pilot who must fly, much of the time, beneath the level of the trees. On the ground, teams of helpers move across unpredictable terrain at high speed, all focusing on the spot where the rhino, once darted, will eventually drop to its knees.
The notching that I witnessed goes pretty smoothly; the four-year-old bull calf succumbs quickly to the sedative, and his mother is corralled at a safe distance. The experts work in concert, and with practised precision: the aim is to carry out the notching, take DNA samples and insert a microchip as swiftly as possible. The blindfold and ear stoppers are deployed to minimise any distress the animal may feel; throughout, his well-being is carefully monitored. Within 20 minutes, we are all climbing into our vehicles; and, at the same time, the rhino is climbing, albeit unsteadily, to his feet. He’ll never know what has just happened to him, but he’s probably very glad to see his mother ambling back towards him through the bush.
At Phinda, they undertake ten or 15 notchings a year, with places available for guests on safari at one of their beautiful lodges. We stay at two: Mountain Lodge, with its fabulous views over the rest of the reserve, and the even more magical Forest Lodge, set deep in the rare ‘sand forest’. Each glass-walled cabin nestles among the trees, completely cut off from its neighbours, with only the rustle of the red duiker deer to provide a soundtrack (unless, of course, you indulge in one of the divinely relaxing massages, which are administered in the open-air privacy of your verandah).
Not that anyone would want to spend a great deal of time in their room, luxurious and sybaritic though it might be. The lure of the morning and evening game drives, managed by wonderfully knowledgeable rangers and trackers, are too much to resist. On our first night at Phinda, we happened upon a pride of lions, lying sated around the carcass of a recently devoured buffalo. They were too full to take much notice of us until, without warning, one young male reared its head and looked straight at us. The gaze of a lion, post-prandial or otherwise, is not something you forget in a hurry. On another evening, we found ourselves driving towards the sound of trampling; suddenly, in the moonlight, we made out the ghostly grey shape of an elephant, snacking on a few acacia branches. And perhaps most captivating of all was the sight of a cheetah and her cubs, two of them injured by marauding males, all of them clinging together for survival. But it’s not just the marquee animals that fascinate; one of my abiding memories is of sitting, utterly quiet, watching two nyala antelope squaring up over territory. Eventually one slunk off, defeated by who knows what subtle signal of dominance. And I defy anyone not to be charmed by a warthog.
All of these spectacles were viewed from the comfort of a Land Cruiser. Most memorable of all, though, was the moment we abandoned the car and went on a bushwalk. We spent some hours on the trail of a herd of bison who, despite their size, proved trickier to locate and more fleet of foot than you might imagine. We ended up leaving them to roam in peace, but the experience of merely walking through this untamed landscape felt like privilege enough.
Mahlatini (www.mahlatini.com) offers a five-night Zululand safari at &Beyond Phinda from £2,650 per person, including flights, transfers and scheduled safari activities. Rhino-tagging is extra.