HLUHLUWE-IMFOLOZI GAME RESERVE, South Africa—During the rescue of a South African rhino calf whose mother was killed by poachers, six heavily perspiring men squeezed the sedated orphan into a helicopter whose seats and doors had been removed to make more space, according to a witness account. The rhino’s behind stuck out of the aircraft a bit, but the improvised airlift in February was a success.
Days later, an Associated Press team saw the jittery calf trotting around a holding pen at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, a wildlife area whose tradition as a rhino refuge contrasts with an otherwise grim picture in which rhinos have been slaughtered in increasing numbers to meet demand for their horns in parts of Asia, especially Vietnam.
The disoriented calf, which collided noisily with an enclosure door at one point, could spend a couple of years under human care until it is resilient enough to return to the wild. It is the guest of conservationists whose predecessors, many decades ago, chased darted rhinos through thorny bush on horseback, or noosed them while speeding alongside the galloping beasts in open trucks.
The storied history at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, the last redoubt of southern white rhinos a century ago and then a gene pool for distribution of surplus rhinos elsewhere in Africa and in Western zoos and parks, is a source of hope among groups struggling for a formula to curb poaching. In the late 19th century, there were estimated to be fewer than 100 of that type of rhino because of uncontrolled hunting, posing a crisis comparable in some ways to today’s challenge.
“They were where we are now—in dire straits, with their backs against the wall,” said Werner Myburgh, chief executive officer of the Peace Parks Foundation, a group that promotes cross-border conservation areas.
Today, there are about 20,000 southern white rhinos, most of them in South Africa. There are only three northern white rhinos left in the world, living at a Kenyan conservancy. The critically endangered black rhinos number about 5,000. Other kinds of threatened rhinos live in parts of Asia.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, formerly split into two parks, transfers roughly 100 rhinos annually, many going to other conservation areas or private farms, said Cedric Coetzee, manager of rhino security in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, which includes the park.
“We’re still in a sustainable model here,” Coetzee said.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi was among the first areas in Africa where wildlife was formally protected in the late 19th century, and had also been a former royal Zulu hunting ground with some restrictions on the killing of animals.
“It’s one area where we all meet together,” Coetzee said. “It’s got steep, steep traditions in Zulu history and it’s got steep, steep traditions in white history as well.”
The park is under less pressure from infiltration than South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which is particularly vulnerable because it borders Mozambique, where many rhino poaching teams are based.
Still, the threat looms. Poachers killed 24 rhinos in KwaZulu-Natal province as of Feb. 25 this year, an increase of 16 percent over the same period in 2015. Nationwide, poachers killed 1,175 rhinos in South Africa in 2015, down 40 from the previous year, according to the government.
The facility in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi park where the white rhino calf was taken after its helicopter ride can house several dozen rhinos. On a recent afternoon, two black rhino calves snacked on leaves and one approached visitors at a barrier, seemingly content to be patted on its head.
The man credited with saving southern white rhinos is Ian Player, the late South African conservationist and brother of golfer Gary Player who pioneered rhino capture and relocation methods in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi area, starting in the late 1950s. He worked closely with Zulu tracker Maqgubu Ntombela in a relationship that defied the racial divisions of the era’s white minority rule.
“There’s a lot of good energy” at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, said Coetzee, the rhino security manager.