Saving the rhino at South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve

Saving the rhino at South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve.
A rhinoceros at South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve. Photo credit: Getty

Madikwe Game Reserve is located in northern South Africa, close to the Botswana border.

It's the fifth largest game reserve in the country and is home to more than 10,000 wild mammals including the 'Big 5' - elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard.

Seeing these animals up close for the first time is a mind-blowing experience.

They are themselves very strong, powerful, and imposing creatures. However, while watching them roam through the park, it strikes you just how peaceful they really are.

Being there, so far from normality and stresses of daily life at home, seemed to offer me a new perspective. Without sounding dramatic, I can't remember the last time I was so struck by awe.

Madikwe Game Reserve is also where an elite counter-poaching unit operates 24/7, tasked with protecting the park's rhinoceros population from being illegally hunted.

The unit itself operates in secrecy during both day and night. With the exception of its leader, I'm not allowed to show or name its members, or post any pictures of the mammals which might identify where in the park they were taken.

Mitch McCann's day saving rhino at South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Madikwe's poaching problem is slowly improving, with less than 10 rhinos slaughtered by illegal hunters in the last year. However, any kill is significant, and adds to the devastating number of deaths reported across the country. reports almost 8500 rhinos have been poached in South Africa throughout the last decade.

On arrival at Madikwe, I was met by 'Philip', the head of the Counter-Poaching Unit. Philip was a big man, with a strong presence. He means business, and that's reaffirmed by the fact he has a large machine gun strapped on to the front of his truck.

Philip's passion for saving the mammals was immediately obvious.

"Rhinos are now in a negative growth decline. That means more are being poached than are being born. Even with all the calves running around, they can't keep up if they're being poached," Phillip told me.

He estimates three are killed in South Africa every day.

On my day in Madikwe, I was helping find unregistered rhinos in the park so the blood and horn samples could be entered into a national database. When an offender tries to traffic a rhinoceros horn out of South Africa, officials can take samples from that horn, which could find a match.

The samples can prove pivotal in finding out where a rhino came from, if it were ever hunted.

Mitch McCann's day saving rhino at South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve.
Photo credit: Newshub.

The head counter-poacher acknowledges the number of animals being hunted is dropping, but said that doesn't mean poachers aren't trying anymore.

"The case is that the numbers are getting so, so small of the great population [of rhino], that it is becoming harder to poach an animal," he said.

After a short briefing, the helicopter roared into life to find any of the unregistered animals, while we watched from the ground. Minutes after take-off, the pilot and veterinarian onboard radio in to tell us they have found both an unregistered mother and child rhino, and they will tranquilize both of them.

After getting the call to drive toward them, we headed a few hundred metres into the bush.

Watching a rhino being tranquilized is confronting.

The helicopter flies around at a rapid pace, ducking and diving in an attempt, it seems, to daze the mammals; meaning they will pass out sooner. It's tough to watch, as the mother and child run aimlessly in circles, scared and helpless as the chopper whirs overhead.

Mitch McCann's day saving rhino at South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Once unconscious, I am allowed to approach the rhinos as they lay on their sides. The veterinarian covered their eyes with a sheet to prevent any unnecessary trauma if the medicine begins to wear off.

There's a short window to take the necessary samples and tag the ears, with the samples including both blood and horn.

While the veterinarian and counter-poaching unit take samples from the giant animals, I watched in admiration for how much they care for the rhinos. The veterinarian was very animated as he encouraged me to feel their skin and inspect the giant body.

There's no question they're stunningly beautiful creatures.

After blood is drawn, it's time to take a sample from the horn. This is done with an electric drill and then covered up with glue. An incredibly simple, unscientific method, but it does the job nonetheless.

The sample itself is very small and resembles pencil shavings. Despite the small shavings, these are incredibly valuable on the black market, and are priced higher than gold.

Mitch McCann's day saving rhino at South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve.
Photo credit: Newshub.

As the process draws to a close, I was allowed to take pictures with the animals I helped register, with another warning not to reveal any geographic locations if I post them online.

Perhaps the highlight of this experience was when the medicine wore off the rhinos.

The baby awoke first, metres from its mother, before running to search for her. The mother then woke up and did the same.

Eventually, after calling to each other, they scuffled through the bush and reunited once more.

It was a truly emotional experience and perhaps one of the most fulfilling I have ever had.