Annual rhino count and ear notching

Rhino ear notching is a process by which rhinos are marked with cuts on their ears for tracking and monitoring purposes. Each animal is given a distinctive mark to differentiate it from the others. Read how rhino ear tagging works and why it’s so important.

The rhino is one of the world’s most endangered species. Keeping track of these beautiful herbivores is vital to their conservation. 
When it comes to saving the rhino, ear-notching is a proven method for accurately mapping the population and verifying the safety of black rhinos in Zimbabwe, and Sango in particular. In this article, you’ll find out how ear-notching works and why it’s crucial to securing a long-term, positive future for rhino conservation in Sango and beyond.

No helicopter, no rhino notching

A helicopter circles above the vast bush. Vet Josh Mostert aims his tranquilizer gun at a female rhino. Josh squeezes the trigger and scores. The tranquilizer dart lodges in the rhino’s hindquarters. It gallops a short distance and comes to a staggering halt a few seconds later. Men and women in khaki uniforms cautiously stalk the fallen giant in the dry bush. They are the ground team led by Nick LaGrange of African Wildlife Management Services. The men blindfold the rhino. “This also reduces the stress level,” Nick explains. He gently places his hand on the rhino’s leathery skin. 

August is notching time at Sango

Every year in August, rhino ear notching takes place at Save Valley and the Sango Wildlife Conservancy. It’s only a 15-minute procedure that involves notching and basic veterinary checks. But it’s vital to keep an accurate population record and ensure the safety of Sango’s black rhinos. “Of course, every rhino looks exactly like every other rhino from a distance,” explains Nicholas Duncan. “So, the only way you can tell them apart is by the notches in their ears, which are little V-shaped cut-outs. Nicholas knows what he is talking about. As President of the Perth-based SAVE African Rhino Foundation, he has dedicated the last 35 years of his life to protecting Africa’s rhinos. 

“Whether it’s done in the right or the left ear, it represents a number,” Nicholas adds. “So, if you want the number 677, you do all the notches for 677, and that number is never repeated. All the rhinos in Zimbabwe and Sango have a unique number.

125 rhinos live in Sango

A plane and helicopter with pilots and 10 to 15 dedicated trackers, vets, and biologists on the ground. The logistical and financial burden of rhino tracking is enormous, but it pays off. Thirty years ago, in 1993, there were just 270 rhinos in Zimbabwe; today, as of 31 December 2022, there are 1,105 rhinos in Zimbabwe, of which a quarter, or about 250 rhinos, roam free in the Save Valley Conservancy and 50% of them on Sango.

Saving black rhinos from extinction

Nick LaGrange and his colleagues routinely check the rhinos’ breathing and blood pressure, take DNA samples and cut a mark in their right ear. They also implant a transmitter to locate the rhino anytime, anywhere. “For poachers, this female, with her horn pointing skywards, would be a profitable catch,” says David Goosen. As Sango’s Conservation Manager, he is responsible for the welfare of the animals throughout the conservancy.
After less than fifteen minutes, the vet injects the antidote. Within two minutes, the massive rhino is standing up. Still wobbly on his feet, he disappears into the bush within seconds.

When it comes to saving the rhino, ear-notching is a proven method for accurately mapping the population.

Why rhino notching is more than just safety

But ear-notching goes beyond security; it enables the rhino’s health to be monitored and veterinary care to be deployed quickly when needed. It is also used to maintain the genetic diversity of key rhino populations by monitoring rhino interactions, and the removed ear notch provides a sample for the ever-growing rhino DNA database. Ensuring the genetic diversity of Zimbabwe’s rhino population is becoming increasingly important. In 2022, Zimbabwe reached a wonderful milestone when the country’s rhino population exceeded 1,100 for the first time in 30 years. This is proof that ear-tagging is a key part of the strategy to maintain a genetically strong rhino population.

Sango is committed to ensuring the survival of Africa’s rhinos by implementing the best research and management practices. We have formed a strategic alliance with SAVE African Rhino Foundation (SARF) and Anti-Poaching Tracking Specialists (ATS) to tackle all aspects of wildlife crime, from poaching to trafficking and buying.
We’re working with field rangers, criminal investigators and customs authorities to combat the illegal wildlife trade.  And to make sure they can thrive in the future, we’re protecting rhinos and improving their habitat.

Why we care about rhinos

Sango is committed to ensuring the survival of Africa’s rhinos by implementing the best research and management practices. We have formed a strategic alliance with SAVE African Rhino Foundation (SARF) and Anti-Poaching Tracking Specialists (ATS) to tackle all aspects of wildlife crime, from poaching to trafficking and buying.

We’re working with field rangers, criminal investigators, and customs authorities to combat the illegal wildlife trade.  And to make sure they can thrive in the future, we’re protecting rhinos and improving their habitat.

The well-trained ground team in action.

FAQ: Frequent questions and answers

  1. Where does the name rhinoceros come from?
    The word “rhinoceros” is derived from the Greek words rhino, meaning nose, and keras, meaning horn, hence, “horn-nosed.”
  2. How long does it take to notch a rhino?
    A black rhino’s notching at Sango takes a maximum of 15 minutes. It includes checking respiration and blood pressure, taking DNA samples, and carving a mark in the right ear. If necessary, a transmitter is implanted so the rhino can always be tracked. 
  3. How many rhinos live on Sango?
    At the end of 2022, 1,105 rhinos were counted in Zimbabwe, of which 25% live in the Save Valley and about 125 of them in Sango.