At the crack of dawn on the edge of the Pilanesberg National Park a rescue team gathers.
From the back of a Land Rover the vet and his assistants are assembling an array of drugs, syringes and darts. Watching, huddled in the early morning cold, is a group of half a dozen who have come together from South Africa and Europe and introduce themselves as balloon artists.
What brings two such different sets of people together is the plight of a young rhino. It was shot a few months earlier by poachers. It wasn’t even the target, its horns are too small to be of much value. But it was in the line of fire as the poachers shot a giant bull rhino in the head and closed in to hack off its horns. The young animal skittered off through the low scrub, shot in the leg and shoulder. Over the following weeks rangers spotted that the rhino was becoming immobile as the shrapnel dug into body tissue.
So now vets plan to dart the animal with just enough sedation to make it docile. Then they will walk it into a truck and drive it a couple of hours to a major veterinary hospital on the outskirts of Pretoria.
There surgeons will remove the shrapnel and check the rhino has recovered from the anesthetic. These are risky procedures and animals often don’t survive.
The helicopter takes off with the vet and his dart gun on board. It circles the park looking for the herd the young rhino hangs out with. The radio crackles as the pilot tells the team following in two trucks that they have located their target. The helicopter dips sharply down, hovers and the young rhino lurches into sight and runs towards us, with a dart clearly visible in its rump.
The vet lands and organises his team. They blindfold the rhino and block its ears – blind and deaf the animal will supposedly be less distressed as they manhandle it into the lorry. One leg is quivering as the animal sags under the effects of the drugs. It takes half a dozen people to push and pull the rhino towards the parked vehicles.
The balloon team take hurried selfies before the rhino is safely walked up the ramp into a crate and secured for the journey to Pretoria.
The group is planning to create a massive balloon rhino, 15 by 7 metres in size. It would be assembled and stand in the middle of Menlyn Court, one of Pretoria’s main shopping centres. For a small donation people can take photos of themselves next to the inflatable creature and the money will go to the Pilanesburg Wildlife Trust.
The trust works alongside the National Park on a range of conservation projects covering lions, elephants and other species. But a lot of their work involves rhinos and the impact of the poaching crisis.
Projects include rescuing rhino orphaned after their mothers are shot and rhino ambulances to transport injured animals, to creating a DNA database from each animal in the park which increases knowledge of the species but can also be used in court cases if poachers are caught with horn.
At the end of day word came back, the rhino had been safely returned to the park, free of shrapnel. And the balloon team had headed off to start work – inspired more than ever to raise awareness of the poaching crisis.