White Rhinoceros – The Last Rung in My Big–Five Ladder
For the past 45 minutes I’d crouched immobile behind a low thornbush on the edge of a 20–acre grass–covered meadow, watching five rhinos graze. Moving their enormous heads from side to side, they cut a swath through the field, ingesting an impressive amount of green groceries.
A slight wind was blowing in our direction; the quarry was completely unaware of our presence. When first spotted, they were approximately 70 yards off and had come no closer during their recent machinations. In the last three minutes, this situation changed. Two of the rhino, one with the largest horn, grazed in our direction – moving from my left to right. The smaller one came to within 20 yards of us, while the larger was approximately 50 yards away.
For reasons known only to them, both rhino suddenly stopped – not agitated, just frozen. The larger rhino was partially obscured by the closer. I held the dart gun on ‘ready.’ Carl had set the pressure for a distance of approximately 50 yards. Barry’s hands tightened on his .470 Krieghoff Classic double rifle – just in case! Lady Luck smiled. After two to three minutes (it seemed a lot longer) the larger rhino walked forward, giving me an unobstructed view.
A moment of truth had arrived. I sighted the red dot on its right shoulder and squeezed the trigger. Following the whooshing sound as the dart flew, I could see the red tip impaled on the rhino’s shoulder. Startled by the sound, both rhino charged forward full speed – luckily, not in our direction. They were joined by their companions and rapidly ran downhill. I breathed a sigh of relief and felt elated. Perhaps my final quest was over.
Six months prior this event, I had little interest in hunting a southern white rhinoceros. On two previous occasions I’d seen them in the wild and neither encounter had whetted my appetite to hunt these apparently docile behemoths. However, last fall I shot a very large male leopard in Namibia, and now had four of the African Big Five, all of record–book quality. I needed only a rhinoceros to complete SCI’s African Big Five Grand Slam.
The major impediment to my shooting a rhinoceros was the kill fee – at least $50,000… Out of the question. On the other hand, I could afford the substantially less cost of darting one of these ‘Pleistocene holdovers.’ Frank Cole of Cabela’s Outdoor Adventures arranged for me to hunt with Barry Burchell of Frontier Safaris. The hunt was to include darting a rhino, hunting caracal with Barry’s hounds, and introducing my daughter, Ruth Ann, to big–game hunting.
Accordingly, we arrived in Port Elizabeth in April after the obligatory 24–hour air travel. The facilities of the game ranch were very impressive. Approximately 50 miles inland from the Eastern Cape, the spectacular hilly terrain was sparsely covered with small bushes and short trees. The weather, early winter, was dry and the temperature ideal.
The first day, while getting over the jet lag, Ruth Ann practised shooting Barry’s Ruger Model 77 .270 calibre rifle. That afternoon she killed her first big–game trophy – a very impressive Cape kudu bull.
The next morning, we drove 30 miles to the Lalibela Game Reserve through heavy fog and met PH Carl van Zyl, our primary guide. The veterinarian, a delightful individual, showed me the ins and outs of using his dart gun. This gun had a long, thin barrel and a red–dot sight. The maximum range was 50 yards. He made it very clear that, due to the parabolic trajectory of the dart, the precise distance to the quarry must to be known. (If the rhino was 20 yards away and the gun was set at 50 yards, the dart would go over its back. Conversely, if the rhino was 50 yards away and the gun was set at 20 yards, the dart would hit the dirt before reaching the rhino.) I practised several times, and managed to hit a small cardboard box.
We piled into a Land Cruiser and went hunting for rhino, first encountering a female rhino with a young calf. She didn’t seem too perturbed at our presence, but it was obvious she expected us to move on – which we did. After about an hour, we found five grown rhinos in a grassy meadow and crawled slowly to the edge. One rhino had a trophy–quality large horn. Frankly, at that juncture, I could have borrowed Barry’s .470 Krieghoff and killed the rhino without further ado – not a particularly challenging event, to say the least. However, since I was on a darting mission, the next 45 minutes were filled with excitement and anticipation as I sat still and waited…
After the rhinos had left the field, they soon disappeared from our view. Carl whistled for the crew to bring the vehicle and pick up Ruth Ann and the vet who’d hidden behind a tree about 75 yards behind us to watch the spectacle. All boarded, we followed the path made by the rhinos as they ran downhill into a ravine and spotted the darted rhino in thick bush – about 750 yards in all.
We gingerly approached the downed behemoth, but it became clear that the animal couldn’t move. Its respiration was shallow and rapid and its skin felt quite hot. The vet quickly began taking horn measurements, drawing blood samples, administering antibiotics, etc. The rest of the crew chopped down the nearby brush so that the rhino could be photographed. The dart was still in place; it had been driven in exactly perpendicular to the surface. This is important so that the sedating agent was injected directly into the muscle and not into the very thick skin.
After about 15 minutes, the dart was pulled out – we were ready to begin the final step. With all of us aboard, the vehicle was turned around and made ready to exit. The vet administered the antidote and hot–footed it back to the truck. The rhino seemed to shake itself somewhat and attempted to rise. We made a circle and returned higher up on the hill. By that time, approximately five minutes had elapsed. The rhino was up and walking around unsteadily, but headed in the direction of his departed buddies. Ten minutes later, we saw him grazing with the group as though nothing had happened.
Carl had told us that this was only the second rhino they’d darted, and that it had never been darted before. Also, they would not dart any animal more than once a year. He said that this darting episode had gone as smoothly as he’d experienced. (The next day, I received a certificate of the horn measurements for the SCI Record Book. A fibreglass replica of the horn using these measurements would be sent later.)
We drove back to Barry’s ranch. That afternoon, about 3 p.m., we rode in the high hills looking for smaller plains game. The scenery was absolutely spectacular, and we saw a number of different species. Just as the sun began to set, Barry decided to drive through an area of pines that looked much like Virginia spruce pine to look for a bushbuck with impressive horns.
Barry spotted the animal approximately 120 yards off. Ruth Ann put the rifle on the shooting sticks, but couldn’t see the bushbuck in spite of Barry’s directions. Finally, he said, “Do you see that brown rock?” She concurred. “Shoot the rock!” She did – and the bushbuck promptly fell.
We had an early start the next morning to hunt caracal. The hounds were turned out close to the lodge where two caracals had been seen crossing the road the day before. The handlers released the hounds and walked with them in a brush–covered valley while we remained on the crest of the hill watching their progress. After about 30 minutes, we heard the dogs strike. It soon became quite clear they’d jumped a predator. They ran in full cry for about 30 minutes, finally baying a caracal within about 300 yards of us. When we arrived at the tree, a large male clung to a branch that was densely covered by leaves. Although it was quite visible when I was close, from more than 10 feet away the cat was totally obscured by the foliage. This created a difficult situation because the rifle had a telescopic sight mounted close to the receiver. If I moved far enough away to see clearly through the telescope, the caracal was obscured by the leaves. At a short range, when the cat was visible, the scope couldn’t be focused. In desperation, I sighted down the left side of the barrel and guessed where the bullet should travel.
By sheer luck I killed the caracal. The cat fell out of the tree and was immediately retrieved by one of the handlers so that the hounds couldn’t tear the hide.
That afternoon, we drove to the edge of the Karoo dry–lands, approximately 75 miles north–west, where the terrain was flatter and the vegetation sparse – where Rush Ann completed her goal to acquire three antelope with her springbok. Barry told us that when springboks run a lot or are excited, the hairs on the back exude a particular odour much like cotton candy.
After a day of rest we began the tiring, boring long flight home. In the air, I relived the experience and mulled over the future. I’ve hunted four African countries and taken the Big Five. This safari clearly was not as high a level of excitement as I’d experienced before, but it certainly was far more of a challenge than killing the rhino would have been. I’m certain that our rhino was happier regarding the chosen alternative. In any case, I’ve now climbed the final rung in the African Big Five ladder.
Joseph C. Greenfield, Jr. is Professor of Medicine at Duke University. After stepping down as Chairman of the Department of Medicine, he hunted dangerous game on 12 safaris to four African. A number of these are chronicled in ‘Bwana Babu,’ published in 2006 by Safari Press.