The incessant chopping noise above Chimoko was an alien sound. He’d not heard it before and it was not typical of the African bush. Curiously he looked around, trying to identify the source. Suddenly a sharp sting pierced his hide. Alarmed, Chimoko's immediate instinct was to get to safety. So he ran… through the mopane scrub and down into the river bed. He ran…
All of a sudden he felt himself tiring. That chopping sound was following him, but he was now feeling drowsy and confused. It was becoming difficult to run…
Five minutes after Josh darted Chimoko from the helicopter we found him wedged in a clump of bushes against the river bank. Relieved, the team got to work.
Chimoko is one of 150 black rhino living on Save Valley Conservancy (SVC) in the south of Zimbabwe. Rangers had noticed him favouring his right hind leg, so an attempt was made to treat his scarred and swollen limb after he had been darted for notching. They realised the snare was firmly embedded around Chimoko’s leg, and would need an expert team to remove the ghastly wire that had tightened around his limb
The conservancy sprang into action. A team was assembled from Save Conservancy, Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management, African Wildlife and Conservation Management, Aggressive Tracking Services and Special Species Protection Unit.
Within ten minutes the bushes around Chimoko were cut away. The team gently lowered him onto his side, inserting ear plugs and covering his eyes with a blindfold to minimise his stress. After ensuring he was in a comfortable and suitable position oxygen was administered and monitoring of his vital signs – temperature, blood oxygen levels, heart rate and breathing - began.
An X-ray by veterinarian Mike Thorne clearly showed three strands of wire twisted into a snare that was tightly wrapped around Chimoko's leg bone. The position of the knot was easily identifiable, enabling veterinarian Jackie to know exactly where to make the incision. We held our breaths as her scalpel cut into his skin and through the flesh.
Jackie had to cut deep to expose the snare. She also had to be careful not to cut into a tendon or ligament and permanently disable Chimoko. The fact that she was working on one of the world's most critically endangered animals must surely have added stress, but at no time during the procedure did Jackie betray any nervousness. She was careful and considerate of Chimoko and confident with the procedure.
Within 15 minutes some of the snare was visible. We could see the strands of tough 2 mm sprung steel wire carefully twisted into a menacing rope close to a knot, designed to slip onto an animal and slowly tighten, cutting deep into the flesh and causing pain, immobility and eventual death.
A second X-ray showed the team the incision was the right place. Josh used a pair of wire cutters to cut through the snare. As he cut through the first strand, one end of the cutters snapped off. A second pair was deployed.
Chimoko’s vital signs were stable. Water was sprayed over him at regular intervals throughout the procedure to keep him in cool in the midday September sun. We held our collective breath as Josh pushed into the wound again.
This time it worked. The ends of the three strands of wire were exposed. The collective breath was released and we cheered. Our elation was momentary, though. The ideal result would be the removal of the entire snare. To do that the knot needed to be found so it could - hopefully - be used to pull the length of the snare out through the incision.
The X-ray revealed the knot was slightly to the right of where the snare was cut. Jackie made the incision slightly longer, carefully cutting towards the front of Chimoko's leg. The level of anaesthetic was strong enough to immobilise Chimoko but mild enough so he was awake and could react when Jackie pressed inside the incision to make sure she wasn’t going to cut into a nerve or tendon – Chimoko’s leg would twitch if she touched a sensitive area.
Using her fingers she dug into the wound, and found the knot.
This time a pair of pliers clamped over the knot. Despite using all his considerable strength Josh could not pull the snare out. We could see the wire moving on the opposite end of the knot. Mark stepped forward and attached his pliers to the knotted end. On the count of three Josh and Mark pulled.
For a moment the wire’s end waved, and then suddenly vanished into Chomoko's wound, following the knot out of the incision site. The team had achieved the best result. The snare was removed.
Antibiotics were administered. Antiseptics washed the wound clean of all debris. A final X-ray showed bone had started to grow over and encapsulate the snare. Now there was no risk of the foreign object in Chimoko's body causing an infection and a slow, agonizing death. The wound was left open to drain and heal naturally.
Ninety minutes had passed since Chimoko had run into the bushes after his darting. It was time to revive him. Black rhino are renowned for their short tempers and have been known to charge furiously at anything they perceive to be a threat, so most of us moved far away. Josh administered the revival drug before quickly making his way to safety.
Within a couple of minutes Chimoko stood up, looked around him and up and down the river bed. He then turned and trotted off. Pilot Nick le Grange was monitoring Chimoko from the air, and he reported that the black rhino was definitely moving far more easily than he had been when he was first darted.
Observing the procedure was an emotional experience. Six breaths per minute is a good, stable breathing rate for rhinos. Every time Chimoko drew a breath it seemed like a resigned sigh. Watching him lying on his side brought back the dreadful and sadly all too common images of poached rhinos; they're usually photographed lying down either dying or dead, their faces horribly mutilated when the poachers hack off their horns. After the procedure I was able to touch Chimoko, and I will never forget how soft his skin felt. I always imagined rhinos would feel coarse and hairy, much like an elephant’s skin; it was completely different. Toward the end of the operation several tiny butterflies landed on his skin, which added to the poignancy of what was he going through... and really brought home the fact that this ghastly snare had been cutting into his body for up to 15 months.
Steve Vos, Save Valley Conservancy’s Chief Operating Officer is all too aware of the silent horror that is snare poaching: “We all know about the dreadful threat to elephants and rhinos because of the illegal trafficking in wildlife products. Wildlife poaching from snaring rarely makes the news. Snares are a deadly killer all over Africa, and dealing with this problem is far more complicated than simply increasing anti-poaching operations. Failure to deal with the many causes of poaching, such as poverty, corruption, human encroachment into wildlife areas and poor governance, means all Africa’s wildlife is under threat.
“The snare we removed from Chimoko was probably set for a buffalo. Snares are indiscriminate and deadly. No one knows just how many animals are killed globally by snares every year, but the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands. Our rangers spend many hours every day searching for and removing snares, which are usually replaced as quickly as they are confiscated.”
A few days after Chimoko’s snare was removed the team worked on three wild dogs that had been badly injured by wire snares. One of the dogs had to be euthanised because her injuries were so severe and one of her legs had been almost completely amputated by the snare.
The team that worked on Chimoko are dedicated and determined to do their best for Chimoko and all our wildlife. They make a difference, and have ensured Chimoko has a second chance to live a healthy life. They see things I have only ever read about or watched on videos. I will never forget watching how hard they all worked to save Chimoko.