There’s something very romantic and dramatic about spending time in the African bush. Living in Johannesburg, South Africa, I am fortunate to be a few hours’ drive from some exceptional game reserves. I normally make two or three trips into the bush each year.
As a business leader, it’s important to find ways give back. So, when I got an opportunity to donate my time in a way that aligned with this passion, I jumped at the chance. And that’s how I found myself holding up a rhino while assisting veterinarians with conservation activities.
The event took place in January at the Pilanesberg National Park and Game Reserve. Located a few hours northwest of Johannesburg, Pilanesberg is the fourth largest park in South Africa. It’s one of the few places in the country where you can see the “Big 5” in one place - lion, leopard, elephant, cape buffalo, and rhino.
Pilanesberg’s important rhino population has been plagued by poaching for the last several years. A rhino’s horn isn’t a horn at all – it’s made of keratin, just like our fingernails. It’s considered by some to be a status symbol and is still used in traditional medicine. Sophisticated teams of poachers will shoot or tranquilize rhinos, cut off their horns, and leave them to bleed to death. It’s an incredible, infuriating waste. But with black market prices at $20,000 US per kilogram, and the typical rhino horn weighing 3kg, poachers can’t resist the large payday.
After losing over 120 rhinos to poaching, Pilanesberg started a program in 2020 to proactively de-horn their entire rhino population. Run by veterinarians, the de-horning events are a safe way to remove any temptation while also allowing for valuable health checkups.
We got an early start before 4:30am under a bright red sunrise. Our team was comprised of several veterinarians, as well as sponsored attendees like me, who would follow the vets’ instructions and help move the animals around.
It was a completely different experience being on foot in the bush. As we tracked the rhino, we encountered all kinds of animals - we even came across lions going in for a kill. It was certainly an exciting and interesting experience without the safety of a vehicle.
Once the helicopter pilot and veterinary co-pilot located a rhino, they darted it with a tranquilizer. Once it laid down, we sprang into action to herd it to a safe area to work on. Immediately, the veterinary team covered its eyes with a hood and put stuffed socks in its ears to help keep it calm and reduce distractions.
Everyone on the team had a job to do, and we had to work quickly – there was only so much time to work with the animal. This was in the middle of summer too, so it was already 24 or 25 degrees Celsius by 6:00am. As it got later in the day, we’d have to wet the rhinos down to keep them cool.
Once the rhino was down, the vets started their health checks. They took a blood sample from the rhino’s ear, as this is where its skin is the thinnest (a rhino’s hide can be up to 2 inches thick).
They also took the rhino’s vitals and checked their eyes. During this time, others started measuring where to cut the horn. As I mentioned, a horn is very similar to our fingernails - if you cut it too short, you’ll damage the growth plate, and it will start bleeding. So, they carefully calculated where to cut it so no usable horn would be left, but not too short to do damage.
Lastly, they marked big red Xs on the rhino’s backside, so they could identify that the animal had already been darted and attended to.
The sleepy rhino was woken up, brought to its feet, and escorted off. As I helped lift and steady the rhino, I was in awe of its sheer power and how it really is a prehistoric animal. I later learned that rhinos have been around for 50 million years – and it certainly looks like it!
As a newbie, there was a lot to be aware of, and it was imperative to follow directions. Especially when you’re moving a 3-ton rhino - they have the potential to shift and snap your leg in half if you’re not careful.
The rest of the day was rinse and repeat. These de-horning events take place throughout the year, as rhino horns grow continuously. By ensuring the entire population has been dehorned, poachers are discouraged from visiting the area, and there has been no impact on the rhino’s ability to defend themselves as they’re all on a level playing field.
This experience also taught me a valuable lesson about situational leadership. There were a lot of different people on our team – the head vet, other vets with their own specialties, the helicopter pilot, and of course, the volunteer muscle.
No matter which role we had, it was our job to support and take instructions from the vet in charge and lead our specific activity. It was an exquisite example of situational leadership. Whether you were cutting the horn, drawing blood, or spraying the rhino with water, each person had the opportunity to take control and be a leader in that moment.
It was an interesting lesson that has parallels with business. No matter what your title is, or how long you’ve been at an organization, everyone should be empowered to take the lead in their area of expertise. That’s what makes a company great – when people are comfortable enough to take control. This lesson resonated so much with me, that after I got back from my trip, I gave a presentation about my experience with my team, and we explored the concept of situational leadership. It has permanently shaped how I will approach empowering others going forward.
Helping the rhinos was an incredible opportunity to do something bigger than myself. Being part of the rhinos’ conservation, touching them, standing alongside them, made me feel insignificant in a way that I haven’t felt before. Not just because it was physically larger than me, but because we should all be doing more to better the world around us.
This event has stuck with me so much, that I plan to sponsor others so they can attend these events too.
Not everyone will have an opportunity to participate in an event like this, but we should all look for ways to contribute to something larger than ourselves, and to rise up and take the lead when it’s our moment to shine.
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