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The First Rhinos Journey to Chobe

The First Rhinos Journey to Chobe

The First Rhinos Journey to Chobe

In 1967 Botswana received its first two pairs of white rhino from the Natal Parks Board. These rhino were an independence gift from the President of South Africa to the President of Botswana.     

Rob Backus, a voluntary service officer who had arrived in Botswana in 1964 and had worked with Pat Hepburn in the early development of the Chobe Game Reserve, was tasked to build the bomas for the rhino and then to travel to Umfolosi Game Reserve with the Natal Parks Board rangers to help capture and transport the rhinos back to Botswana.

Backus has sent ZT his private memoirs of his time working in the Chobe National Park in its early days. In his words…

”I went out daily with Mike, a Natal Parks Board ranger, looking for suitable candidates of breeding age for relocation. This involved getting as close as possible to study the health and fitness, age, relationship, breeding status etc of each individual. We had a lot of fun stalking these prehistoric behemoths.

Darting, following up and recovery was a hectic affair, requiring stealth, stamina and teamwork. Once hit with an aluminium dart containing M99, fired from a .410 calibre tranquiliser gun, the rhino would inevitably take off into the densest thickets of acacia thorn.

We used game guards dressed in leather jackets and chaps, carrying walkie-talkies and mounted on horses with thorn-proof leather armour-plating, to follow up and find the drugged animals. Hurriedly a team would then cut a track in and we would winch them onto low loaders for transport back to kraals before they woke up.

The rhino were housed in enclosures until they quietened down and became habituated to humans and vehicles. They were gradually tempted into large wooden crates where they were fed and watered until ready to travel to their new home.

After being trapped in their crates and sedated, the first selected breeding pair of rhino were winched onto their respective trucks and we set off, with the South African and Botswana flags proudly flying and with two game guards, on the long journey north via Beitbridge and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

Somewhere in Northern Transvaal we stopped late at night at a motel for a few hours sleep, parking our charges in the car park with the guards sleeping in the cabs. At about two o’clock in the morning we were woken by irate noises coming from two cantankerous un-sedated rhino kicking their crates and squealing up a storm and an equally irate crowd of wide awake guests demanding some peace and quiet. The manager asked us to leave and, after administering some more sleep muti to our passengers and some ‘wide awake pills’ for us, we continued our journey.

On arrival the crates were manhandled off the trucks by a gang of labourers and game scouts and the weary travellers were released into the individual mopane pole kraals we had built under the huge Acacia tortillis tree near Serondella.

After a couple of days to ensure the rhino were settling in we repeated the journey, bringing another two back within a week.

In a letter to me dated 29 February 1968, Pat Hepburn wrote: “I let them go into the paddock at Christmas and they’re thriving. Except Henry’s hocks are still raw. They’re all in goodish condition and Squeaker and Pandane are very tame. Henry and Bukale are both very wild”

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 08, March 2012)

Read more about the region in our destination guide: