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Farmed rhinos will soon ‘rewild’ the African savanna

Farmed rhinos will soon ‘rewild’ the African savanna
A herd, or crash, of white rhinoceroses, also known as wide-lipped rhinos (Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)

What would you do with 2,000 farmed rhinos? An African charity wants them to help their wild cousins.

With all the terrible news on climate change, it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening with particular species. So, in case you missed it, a new report has bad news for Earth’s five surviving species of rhino.

Poaching for rhino horn continues to threaten populations of rhinos in Africa, and the two smallest and most endangered species of rhino – the Sumatran rhino and the Javan rhino – tread ever closer to being unable to sustain themselves in the wild, due to habitat loss and low population sizes.

While we should never become desensitised to wildlife crime, environmental destruction and species extinctions, there is also some remarkable news. Conservation charity African Parks recently bought the largest private collection of rhinos in the world: the Platinum Rhino farm at Klerksdorp, near Johannesburg in South Africa, previously owned by South African businessman John Hume.

African Parks plans to release the total Platinum Rhino ranch population, currently 2,000 rhinos (amounting to roughly 15% of the global white rhino population), into the wild across Africa over the next ten years. That is good news. As an ecologist, I don’t see the point in conserving a wild species to keep in captivity. Wildlife belongs in the wild.

Hume’s plan to buy up and breed farmed rhinos might have allowed him to sell horns for a profit once legal international trade was permitted. But that didn’t happen.

The international ban on trading rhino horn, enacted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), has held firm, despite lobbying by Hume and others. These critics were joined by some conservationists who believe that the best or only way to save rhinos is by legalising the trade in their horns. The logic here is that legalisation would flood the market with legal rhino horns, devaluing illegal horns and slashing the profits of poachers and wildlife traffickers. With that, the incentive to kill the rhino would shrink.

Rhino horn is traded for traditional medicine and antiques in China, Vietnam and other Asian countries. EPA-EFE/FAZRY ISMAIL

Hume continued to expand his private rhino farm and used his increasing rhino population as leverage in his calls for legalisation. But with the ban on international trade intact, Hume seems to have run out of patience. The Platinum Rhino collection was put up for online auction in April 2023 at a starting price of US$10 million (£8.1 million). It failed to attract bids.

That may reflect the problem that rhinos face: if people can’t make money out of rhinos, nobody is going to want to pay to look after them. But it also highlights a problem driven by farming wildlife for profit, otherwise known as game ranching: if the profits fall, what happens to the animals?

Into the wild

After its failure to sell at auction, the largest private collection of rhinos in the world was bought by African Parks. But the charity’s plan to rewild these rhinos will not be easy.

Several years ago I was involved in what was, at the time, the largest private translocation of rhinos. The team I worked with moved tens of rhinos; the African Parks mission is a lot bigger.

Wildlife vets and assistants help a darted white rhino calf as he slowly succumbs to the darted tranquillizer administered to him at a private game reserve near Polokwane, South Africa, 12 July 2023. EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK

African Parks manages an area of 20 million hectares spread across 22 national parks and protected areas over 12 countries. They will contain suitable savanna grassland for releasing the rhino and the charity has already reintroduced rhinos to parks in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi.

Conservation scientists recently said there is “a clear need to scale up rewilding initiatives”. It doesn’t get much bigger than reintroducing thousands of rhinos across Africa. Rhinos can play a key role in restoring the ecosystems into which they are placed, greatly influencing a network of species around them and healing ecological wounds incurred by people.

This is the nature of rewilding: restoring the linkages that makeup ecosystems. Restored megafauna (large herbivorous mammals, in this case) can also help address climate change by enhancing how much habitats naturally store carbon, through dispersing seeds and enriching the soil.

Restoring megafauna is tricky, and in a recent scientific paper, conservationists argued for policy changes to support it. They suggest “a transition from farming to wildlife ranching, combined with ambitious breeding programs for keystone megafauna”. The Platinum Rhino population may well turn out to be a flagship in showing that such an approach is achievable.

Where will the rhino go? Will they be released into areas where rhinos are locally extinct, or supplement existing populations? Can they be used to fulfil the role vacated by the functionally extinct northern white rhino (subspecies)?

Time will tell. In the meantime, the farmed rhino needs to be prepared to cope with the stress of translocation and release, and for wild life. They need to be toughened, to find and process food from the natural environments in which they will be placed. They will need to tolerate the challenges of their new environments, such as disease, parasites and predators.

The most dangerous predator of rhinos remains the human species. The conundrum of how to stop or even simply reduce the loss of free-living rhinos to poachers remains. The soon-to-be-released rhino will have to deal with this – with traditional anti-poaching conservation support. Alongside that, demand reduction efforts must continue to bring down the desire for rhino horn. DM

This story was first published on The Conversation. Jason Gilchrist is a Lecturer in the School of Applied Sciences at Edinburgh Napier University.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bonzo Gibbon says:

    One thing we can say is that these rhinos cannot be sent to state owned South African parks, who at best have failed miserably to protect rhinos, and at worst have been complicit in the slaughter. One option might be private SA reserves, who already hold most of SA’s wild rhinos. However, I suspect that these reserves might be close to their rhino carrying capacity. The best option will be AP reserves outside of Africa. AP has done an admirable job of restoring completely degraded reserves, with fencing, properly trained rangers, restored infrastructure and with local communities as stakeholders.

  • I think money would be better spent trying to get this stupid conservation law changed which does nothing to protect the rhino but, does loads to line the pockets of politicians and the complicit bureaucrats at the United Nations.

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