How do you get a one-ton rhino out of the mud? With a backhoe, of course …

A severe drought in southeast South Africa has not only devastated livestock and crops, but it’s also taking a toll on the region’s wildlife. Park officials at Phinda Private Game Reserve had to step in recently when a critically endangered black rhino became mired in the middle of a drying waterhole, unable to pull itself free.

“This waterhole was favoured by this particular black rhino bull,” Phinda conservation manager Simon Naylor told TakePart. “I am not entirely sure how he ended up in the middle of this muddy water hole. On this particular day there was a little surface water, and I think he could smell it and tried to get to it and got stuck in the process.”

Extracting the animal from the slippery mud (black rhinos are notoriously aggressive) was no easy feat. Thick sludge prevented park officials from getting close enough to lasso a rope around the rhino, and, even if this had been possible, it would have been a dangerous move.

“Our options to get him out were very limited; black rhino are big and potentially dangerous animals,” Naylor said. “We thought of darting him and giving tranquilisers or sedatives but were concerned that he might then lower his head and drown in the mud.”

Naylor decided to bring in the heavy machinery. Fortunately, the base of the waterhole was fairly solid, allowing staff to drive a backhoe into the mud without getting stuck. It took over two hours of careful digging, while the angry rhino thrashed in the mud nearby. According to Naylor, the animal appeared unharmed after the stressful ordeal.

Although Naylor and his team usually let nature take its course in these kinds of situations, the rarity of black rhinos, and the poaching threats they face, makes it vital to save every individual. “In the last few years, we lost six rhinos to poachers,” Naylor said. “Poaching has left no one unscathed and is unrelenting.”