Lonely Planet Writer

New conservation programme in South Africa offers visitors the chance to come face-to-face with rhinos

Few people ever get the chance to see a rhino in the wild, even fewer get the opportunity to touch one. However, as part of a novel rhino notching programme in Pilanesberg National Park, visitors can do just that.

––Rhinoceros sighting are common within Pilanesberg National Park, which is one of the largest parks in southern Africa at 500 square kilometres.
––Rhinoceros sighting are common within Pilanesberg National Park, which is one of the largest parks in southern Africa at 500 square kilometres. Image by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Conservation takes on many guises, and in South Africa where rhino poaching has reached epidemic proportions, officials in one park have started an innovative rhino identification programme to protect the animals. This will entail veterinarians and park management individually tracking and tranquilising every rhino in Pilanesberg National Park, after which unique notches will be made in each animal’s ears, along with ID chips being placed in their horns and DNA samples being taken.

To help cover the high costs of the programme, Sun International’s flagship resort at Sun City has teamed up with Pilanesberg Wildlife Trust to offer guests the chance to take part. Visitors will help the team during the operation, and may be able to get close enough to listen the sedated animal’s heartbeat through the skin on its chest.

Perry Dell, Pilanesberg Wildlife Trust’s marketing and PR manager, told News24 that identity notching is a core part of gathering of vital information for a new biological database. He added that while humans are the biggest threat to the species, they are also the rhino’s only hope for survival. Prior to the experience, visitors will be briefed by the park’s chief ecologist about rhinos, poaching and the ‘do’s and don’ts’ while at the notching. The veterinarian will provide guests with information on each procedure that will be performed. Next the vet will take to the air with a pilot to locate and dart a suitable rhino, after which point guests will be moved into the area. Once it has been established that the sedation was successful and that the situation is safe, visitors will approach the animal as part of the notching team. They will then help as directed by staff.

Once all ecological and veterinary work is completed, individual and group photos can be taken if there is no risk to the rhino’s welfare. It is after this point that the vet will reverse the anaesthesia, leading to the rhino retaking to its feet within three minutes. Visitors, standing at a safe distance, can watch this last procedure and then see the rhino move back into the African bush. The entire experience should take between 90 minutes and three hours. Group sizes are limited to 15 people per rhino. Fundamentally, the safety, welfare and dignity of the rhinos are paramount throughout, so a notching will be halted immediately if the attending veterinarian identifies any risk to the animal.

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