The helicopter hovers a few yards above the thorn trees like a mechanical bird of prey.
In the bush below is its quarry: a young adult bull rhinoceros, weighing almost a ton, which is succumbing to the effects of a dart fired from the air.
When the beast is deemed sufficiently groggy, the game capture team drapes a cloth over its eyes and goes to work as its legs wobble and it sinks to the ground. The operation is carried out with clinical precision. The animal is roped while a hole is drilled in its horns to accommodate a microchip.
"It's a bar code. It's unique, so if it ever gets poached we can trace it," says Jeff Cooke, the head of the game capture unit for KZN Wildlife, the conservation body for KwaZulu-Natal province.
Game capture is serious business in South Africa, where it has been honed to a fine science to supply niche markets.
Almost unique in the world, South Africa's privately owned wildlife and game breeding has been a growth industry, although there are signs it has peaked with prices declining partly because of the large supply of animals.
Animals are bred for a range of purposes: for conservation, for hunting and for sale to other game reserves. They are captured on both state-owned and private land.
Sales from game auctions in the country last year amounted to $15.3 million, compared with about $16.6 million in 2004, according to one estimate.
KZN Wildlife says revenue raised from its own game auctions was about $1.5 million last year compared with almost $3.6 million in 2001, but turnover has been up and down. It remains high enough to support a burgeoning industry dedicated to the live capture and transport of wildlife.
"It is a growing industry, though nobody knows exactly how many operators there are," said Petronel Nieuwoudt, who runs a game capture school. "There are some good operators out there, but unfortunately there are also some fly-by-nighters — and that is bad because animals can easily die from stress."
KZN Wildlife alone moves between 3,500 and 4,500 head of game each year. They range from dainty duikers, a small species of antelope, all the way up to elephants.
The rhino being captured on this day is the first to be offered on the market by the Makhasa Game Reserve, a 4,200-acre conservation area owned by the local black community. The money will be used to raise funds for the nearby villages and the running of the park.
"This is going to mean a lot for our community," Simon Gumede, the community's traditional leader, said as he gripped the animal's horn while the capture unit went about its work.
The work is exacting, from the timing to the dosages used.
No margin for error
Dragged from the bush into a clearing, the rhino is given a carefully measured adrenaline shot to revive it partly. This enables the blindfolded animal to stagger to its feet. With a rope around its snout, it is guided by team members into a metal crate, which is winched on to a flatbed truck.
There is no margin for error.
"If the animal gets an incorrect dose it can come around faster than expected and break loose. Then you're in trouble," said KZN Wildlife's communications manager, Jeff Gaisford.
The darting operation involves split-second timing and steely nerves on the part of the pilot and the marksman.
"I try to get within 50 meters of the animal for the darter," said pilot Vere van Heerden.
A darted animal takes four minutes to fall, so van Heerden tries to make sure the shot is fired near a clearing where it will be easy for vehicles to get close.
"As soon as it is darted we start a stopwatch," he said.
Every species handled differently
Lots can go wrong.
"You handle every species differently, and you need to know what you are doing. ... You can't use the same drugs for cats that you use for herbivores," said Nieuwoudt. "You can use the wrong drug or dose and kill an animal. Or if its position is wrong it can bloat. Or it can run too far or get stressed when it is being moved."
Elephants must be doused constantly with water to keep them from overheating and are winched while unconscious into their carrying crates. Lions are darted at night, and individual animals must be separated from the rest of the pride — no easy task.
The work is also very expensive.
On this morning, the helicopter takes about three hours to find a suitable animal to dart, and its operator charges by the hour. One KZN source said the whole operation probably cost about $3,270, including the drugs.
The community will probably get about $11,450 for the rhino, and there were plans to catch another for sale.
Game capture vehicles with cranes and crates are expensive, and helicopters are needed for rhino and elephants, pointing to a capital-intensive industry. However, the high costs and risks highlight the lucrative nature of the business.