Tracking with Dr. Harold K. Black

Rangers located in a Game Park (not mentioned for safety reasons) had the task of locating, darting and inspection of a solitary Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis).
These duties were normal in nature for the Rangers, a duty carried out at least once a year. This particular Rhino had been bred in captivity and transported to this Game Park when it (male) reached 2 years old, and had been in the Park for seven years, along with a female Black Rhino. Mating had taken place only twice in the time period, and had produced two calves over the years. Unfortunately, one of the calves had fallen victim to poachers when it left it’s mother and wandered close to a populated area.
The Rangers usually know the whereabouts of the Male Black Rhino within it’s range and particularly it’s home territory but this time a thunderstorm had obliterated tracks and they believed the Black Rhino to be in a fairly inaccesable area in nearby hills on the edge of the Rhino’s territory. The fact that a helicopter was normaly utilised to locate large mammals such as elephant and of course, Rhino, for darting puposes, the Rangers knew that the sound of a helicopter would upset the Rhino and force it to hide in the thick woodland in the gulleys on it’s range. The Rhino would have to be tracked on foot, a dangerous task indeed.
Armed with a .457 Magnum and a Dart gun, four Rangers and the author making up the party, set out early in the morning for the animals suspected hide-away. The party was dropped off by vehicle on the edge of the Black Rhino territory and started out for the hills a mere four kilometers away. The time was 06h00, one hour after sunrise and it was Summer. The heat was building already.

The Ranger qualified as a Tracker set about cutting for spoor. All the Rangers were actually trackers anyway, but one was particularly good at tracking Rhino. At 08h30 the tracker signaled that he had spotted the spoor of a Rhino in a small patch of sand amongst the rocky ground. It led to a kloof (gulley) about 2 kilometers away and up in the hills. The party single-filed into dense thorn-tree thickets along a game path. The heat was stifling and Mopane flies gathered, getting into your eyes and nose and ears, looking for moisture. An hour later the party left the thickets and the Mopane flies behind. Now the tracker went ahead to an area where he assumed the tracks led. The rest of us gratefully eased off our packs, drank some water and rested in the shade of Acacia trees.
In a while, the tracker returned with the news that he had located the beast about 600 meters away. Good news. We left our packs, except our water bottles at our rest site and proceeded in single file toward our quarry. Hand signals were used as voices were a dead giveaway in the oppressive confines of the thick bush. Treading carefully off the game path, we slowly approached the ‘kloof’, creeping in silence, almost bending double through the thorns. A clenched fist signaled from the tracker brought us to a swift halt, holding our collective breaths. We waited. I could not see a thing through the screen of vegetation. Although I had been in this area with other scientists over the last week and had gotten my ‘bush-eyes’ in the first day or two in the bush, this was different.

I was on the ground, part of the food-chain so to speak, and not in a Game Drive vehicle on a well graded track, high above head-level. Observation is everything. Now the ranger in front of me pointed to my right-hand quandrant, 40 degrees of front. I looked and looked. Nothing. I raised my binoculars and focused through the bush in the direction indicated. My heart was beating out of my chest and it was difficult to hold the 10×7’s steady. As I pulled focus there the Rhino was, a mere 30 meters away, quietly munching on leaves, oblivious to our presence. There was no wind to speak of and the sweat streamed into my eyes. Jeez, it was hot and still. After a long long time, the Ranger in front of me (I was second to last in line) signaled that we must get really low on the ground, if fact, get right down. Now the problem was compounded by the thought of the Rhino detecting us and blundering in panic right through the party lying prostrate in it’s escape route.
A radio crackled. The Rhino lifted it’s head and gazed in the direction of the sound. No one moved, except the radio carrying culprit switched the offending instrument off, slowly. A pulse began to pound in my head – I was holding my breath. I exhaled slowly and quietly. After a lifetime, the Rhino went back to grazing and we went back to blending into the bush.
Black Rhino are far more aggressive than their white brethren, and can be particularly bad-tempered at the best of times. This Black Rhino, having been darted a number of times over it’s life, was a nasty bugger. The Rangers had told me that this specimen reacted badly to the sound of a helicopter and would actively seek out the most difficult cover in which to hide so the rangers were forced to carry out the darting on foot. This is where the story really starts. It became a cat and mouse game between the Rhino and the Rangers with first blood to the Rhino, always. The Rangers had spent many an hour perched up in fever trees (Acacia) with the aggresive Rhino huffing and puffing below them. So I could understand their concern and apprehension should we ‘spook’ this beast.

The lead Ranger gripped and armed his .457 to cover us, and the appointed Dart-gun ranger primed up the cocktail of drugs into the chamber of his weapon. The darter then crept forward on his belly for the shot. I looked around me for a friendly tree to climb should need be. There were none, not friendly anyway, just thorns and low on the ground. Hell. The grazing animal slowly swung it’s bulk while selecting leaves for eating, for a broadside shot from the dart-gun, the handler had now crept to within 10 meters, raised the weapon, aimed and fired. With a crack the dart was embedded into the rump of the Black Rhino who swung around to face it’s attacker, blood in its eyes. The beast and us faced each other for an eternity, but a mere second or two passed. Suddenly, the Rhino accelerated off it’s starting blocks and was off, fortunately, at a tangent, away from the silent party, lying prostrate.

The chase was on. The radio operator signaled to the base camp that we had located and darted the Rhino and a helicopter can be dispatched at all speed to help us locate the animal before it collapses from the effects of the drugs. Time was short. Meanwhile the lead ranger was running through the bush, tearing the khaki uniform he was wearing, with the rest of us in hot pursuit. My hand-held GPS indicated that the direction of noise was to the West. I found myself alone, no others in sight, but a lot of noise ahead of me. I ran as fast as I could, and what the thorns would allow. I fell out of the bush onto the sand of a dry river bed. I stopped to listen and my blood ran cold. Shit. The noise was coming toward me. I looked around for a safe place to hide. No joy. Anyway, it was too late. The Black Rhino came charging out of the bush and crashed onto the riversand, stumbling as the drugs started kicking in. The Rhino got up, looked around and saw me. Shit again. I was rooted to the spot. If I ran, the Rhino would have me sighted and was then in danger of being gored and trampled. I stood still. The Rhino sniffed the air, swung his head toward the safety of the bush and clattered off. The Rhino barely made 6 feet and crumbled in a heap on the bank of the dry river. The next moment the lead Ranger and the Darter burst out of the thickets, big smiles on their faces, laughing and shouting. They had witnessed my statue-like stance when I was confronted by a very cheesed off Black Rhino on drugs. I chided them for being a bunch of woman. Sheepishly they concured. The lead Ranger said I need to sit down in the shade and dwell on my life as it flashed before my eyes. I had gained respect.
I heard the helicopter nearby, and watched as smoke was used to mark a landing spot. Fortunately, we had stopped the beast in an access-able area for the aircraft and, a little later, the Unimog carrying the scientists to the site. The Park Vet de-planned and quickly went over to the Rhino to check it’s condition. A wet canvas towel was draped over the head and eyes of the slumbering Rhino to keep stress to a minimum. Two rangers went out to retrieve our gear left in the woods.
The scientists gathered over the Rhino, taking measurements and blood samples for the annual census. In an hour it was over and the bush party clambered onto the Unimog. The Vet was about to administer the antidote. The helicopter lifted off and circled above us. The wake-up drug was injected and the Vet ex-filed to the Unimog. We watched as the Black Rhino awoke, struggled to its feet and then glared around for targets. It lifted it’s head, swung around and trotted off into the bush, crashing it’s way through the thickets of thorn, the noise of its departure growing faint. The Unimog grunted under power and lurched off down the river bed, the way it had come. The party and the scientists were pleased at the outcome of this task and were congratulating all around. It was not over. Without warning, the Black Rhino, now fully recovered and highly aggressive, burst through the bush and gave the Unimog a forceful 850Kg head-butt, turned and disappeared. Obviously the Rhino wanted to send us on our way with a thought about not crossing his path ever again if we knew what was good for us. Too true. The Rhino would store in it’s memory all what had happened today and next time he would be ready for us.

Tracking with Dr. Harold K. Black

Paul Lindenberg

Roodepoort, South Africa

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Artist's Description

Fictional, but based on a true story

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  • Despot
  • Paul Lindenberg
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