A keeper from Paignton Zoo has experienced the desperate fight to save wild rhinos at first hand. Mammal keeper Cindy Burton spent time in Zimbabwe with a team dehorning wild rhinos in an attempt to save them from poachers.

The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, which runs Paignton Zoo as well as Living Coasts in Torquay and Newquay Zoo in Cornwall, supports conservation work in an area called the Matobo Hills.

The Dambari Wildlife Trust, which WWCT has supported since 1997, is based near Bulawayo. Trust Executive Director Simon Tonge is also the Chairman of the DWT. Verity Bowman, DWT's director, is a qualified vet nurse and also took part in the recent dehorning operations.

Dehorning is done every two years or when needed; in this case a team of ten was assembled, with vets and wildlife rangers offering their spare time to help. It’s a big operation, with 4x4s, a helicopter and a fixed-wing spotter ‘plane. Taking a chainsaw to an endangered animal may seem brutal, but the use of this dramatic ploy is a reflection of just how desperate the fight to save rhinos has become.

It’s hard, dangerous, exciting and tiring work. You have to move quickly over rough terrain, first in a vehicle and then on foot, pushing through thorny bush with kit bags of gear in 33 degrees of heat. They are long days – 6am to 7pm in the field, and then extra hours in the lab afterwards.

Cindy: “We drove through the bush in four-by-fours. You’re in radio contact with the helicopter and the fixed-wing ‘plane. A rhino is separated from any others it’s with by the aircraft and darted from the helicopter. While the fixed-wing monitors the other rhinos and keeps them away, the helicopter gives the word that the animal is slowing down and the drugs are taking effect – that’s when the team hits the ground.”

The animal is becoming drowsy, but is still dangerous; a rope is tied around a hind leg to make sure it doesn’t collapse anywhere inaccessible or fall down a gully. Then the team gets to work. Everyone knows their role: towels cover the eyes and the ears are muffled because the main tool of this operation is a noisy chainsaw. Someone checks the rhino’s vital signs, someone else the animal’s temperature.

Once the animal is darted, there’s a 25-minute window, so speed is of the essence. Each animal is tagged, ear-notched and microchipped – then comes the dehorning. They paint a number on the animal’s flank; full records are kept and most animals are well-known to the local rangers.

“You have to leave a 7 centimetre stump – anything less and you could cause bleeding, leave more and the poachers might still come for it…” The horn grows back in two or three years. Remarkably, the team dehorns an average of about 6 white rhinos a day. “White rhinos are easier to find and easier to dart – with black rhino we could only do 2 or 3 a day.”

Monitoring continues afterwards, with the helicopter and rangers out the next day to make sure the animal is safe. Cindy: “It was great to see these dedicated experts – vets, animal rangers – getting together to do this work. This is not their day job, they come and do this because it needs doing.”

In Zimbabwe rhinos are still declining, but only a few dehorned rhinos have been poached. In the national park, poaching has gone down; the park rangers know every rhino personally.

Cindy, who lives in Stoke Gabriel, has been a zoo keeper for 6 years and worked at Paignton Zoo for 3. She often works with Paignton Zoo’s black rhinos, female Sita and male Manyara. “This was a brilliant experience – I want to keep in touch with them and do more with them if I can.”

Paignton Zoo has been running The Great Big Rhino Project this summer, using life-size painted statues of rhinos in a free public art trail to tell people about the plight of wild rhinos. Most of these will be auctioned on 3rd November at the Riviera International Conference Centre, Torquay, to raise money for rhino conservation.

This is all part of the regional and international fight to save the species from poachers, along with armed patrols, community engagement and political lobbying. It’s an expensive but necessary process – it’s tough love for wild rhinos.

Quotes So much to see, beautifully laid out and loads of interesting information on all the animals. Quotes