Our Burning Planet

SAVING PRIVATE RHINO

‘Benefits so clearly outweigh the risks’: 120 rhino successfully translocated into Greater Kruger system

‘Benefits so clearly outweigh the risks’: 120 rhino successfully translocated into Greater Kruger system
A Member of the translocation team guides rhino towards a crate for transportation to Greater Kruger area. (Photo: Michael Dexter)

120 southern white rhino have just been translocated to member reserves represented by Greater Kruger Environmental Protection Foundation in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, marking the second phase of one of the largest continent-wide rewilding projects for any species and the first time rhino have been reintroduced into this landscape in about 50 years.

120 southern white rhino have just been translocated to several private reserves along the Kruger National Park’s western boundary in the Greater Kruger open system in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, marking the second phase of one of the largest continent-wide rewilding projects for any species.

“That the benefits so clearly outweigh the risks, presents a significant opportunity for rewarding the efforts of everyone who has remained committed to safeguarding rhino populations amid extremely challenging circumstances over the past 10 to 15 years,” said  Sharon Haussmann, CEO of the Greater Kruger Environmental Protection Foundation (GKEPF).

GKEPF vet Günter Nowak carefully guides a sedated rhino to a translocation crate. (Photo: Cathan Moore)

The reserves these rhinos were just translocated to are member reserves represented by GKEPF, which is an environmental protection foundation facilitating communication and a cohesive response to environmental pressures between its nine private open system reserves, a provincial park and national park.

This translocation comes at a time when poaching rates within GKEPF reserves have significantly declined, indicating the effectiveness of security and anti-poaching measures.

This decline in poaching is mirrored in the IUCN’s global numbers of the southern white rhino, which has seen a considerable increase in the subspecies over the last three generations thanks to anti-poaching measures, following an estimated 15% decline from 2012–2017 due to heavy poaching in the largest population.

Rhino crates

Transport crates ready to load rhino. (Photo: Michael Dexter)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Two out of three SA white rhinos now in private hands while poachers decimate KZN herds

As such, the subspecies does not qualify under any of the threatened categories under criteria, and is classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN’s Red List.

However, the IUCN notes that in the absence of conservation measures, within five years the subspecies would quickly meet the threshold for Vulnerable if poaching were to take off.

These rhinos were formerly part of the world’s largest privately owned rhino population of 2,000 southern white rhinos, bought last year by the African Parks group as part of their Rhino Rewild initiative — an ambitious plan to rewild 2,000 southern white rhino into secure protected areas in Africa over the next 10 years.

GKEPF vet Günter Nowak, and CEO Sharon Haussmann inspect the ear of a tranquillised rhino prior to attaching a tracking device. (Photo: Cathan Moore)

Following a failed auction, African Parks purchased the world’s largest captive rhino breeding operation in SA in September 2023 in a bid to rescue these rhinos. The rhinos were purchased for an undisclosed sum from entrepreneur John Hume, who had planned to harvest and sell their horns to buyers in the Far East once this became legal (this has not happened – Ed).

African Parks’ main aim is to rewild them all to well-managed and secure protected areas, to establish or supplement strategic populations, ultimately helping to de-risk the future of the species.

Rhino

Rhino darting with tranquilliser from a helicopter for GKEPF Translocation. (Photo: © Michael Dexter)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Hume’s herd of 2,000 African rhinos get a last-minute ‘lifeline’ in major purchase and rewilding project

This move was hugely significant, as Hume’s 2,000 captive-bred rhinos represented nearly 13% of the world’s remaining wild rhino population, and left them with the mammoth task of undertaking one of the largest continent-wide ‘rewilding’ endeavours for any species.

“We believe the rewilding initiative of all the 2,000 rhino and their offspring is the largest rewilding of megafauna and is the most significant single project that has ever been undertaken relating to a single species,” Donovan Jooste, project manager of African Park’s Rhino Rewild initiative told Daily Maverick.

Tony Carnie reported for Daily Maverick last month the first part of this rewilding project — which saw 40 southern white rhinos, previously part of the African Park’s population, translocated to the 30,000-hectare Munywana Conservancy in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Rhino

A rhino being led towards transportation crates. (Photo: Michael Dexter)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Truckloads of hope arrive in KZN as 40 rhinos are dropped off at Munywana conservancy

And now, 120 more rhinos have been moved into reserves part of  GKEPF, which CEO of African Parks, Peter Fearnhead, said, “will augment the existing rhino population in the Greater Kruger and ensure that these rhino are fulfilling their role in their natural environment, which has been our vision from the start.”

A sedated rhino being gently led towards a transport crate. (Photo: Michael Dexter)

Moving this amount of rhinos is an enormous undertaking, and has taken, as Haussmann says, “many, many sleepless nights” — as well as extensive funding. African Parks is donating the animals to the reserve, with GKEPF donors contributing to the translocation costs and the subsequent ongoing monitoring of the rhino, a critical element for the project’s long-term success.

Removed rhino horn

Cross section of removed rhino horn. (Photo: Michael Dexter)

Initial funders of Rhino Rewild include the Rob Walton Foundation and the Pershing Square Foundation, with thanks to OAK Foundation, Rhino Recovery Fund, Hancock Family, Max Planck Institute and Contemplate Wild, Land Rover Sandton/SMH Group for their support for this translocation to GKEPF.

A rhino enters a transportation crate. (Photo: Michael Dexter)

The cost to rewild each animal to protected areas across the continent will depend on where the rhino are moved to. African Parks told Daily Maverick that Rhino moved to protected areas within South Africa cost about $1,500/rhino. Regionally in southern Africa, around $5,000 – $10,000, and then further north in Africa — which requires an aerial solution — about $50,000/rhino.

Rhino transportation

Loading of rhino transport crates for transportation. (Photo: Michael Dexter)

Strengthening metapopulations

While rhino will not be released into the Kruger National Park (KNP) itself, but into private game reserves along its western boundary, this strategic placement to private reserves bordering the KNP strengthens the rhino metapopulation and lays the groundwork for potential future collaboration as the Kruger continues its fight against poaching.

Dr David Zimmermann, South African National Parks (SANParks) veterinarian, previously explained to Daily Maverick how the concept of metapopulation management comes from island biology.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Protecting cheetahs, island style — how Eastern Cape park plays vital role in mimicking natural migration

“If you can imagine in the ocean there’s a population of birds on one island and a population of birds on another, the only way they can link is to fly from one island to the next,” he said, adding that these fragmented “metapopulations” are separated, but the overall population is still connected.

Rhinos emerging from a transport crate for the first time at night in the Greater Kruger system. (Photo: © Michael Dexter)

But the problem is our landscape, we are managing protected areas — they’re not connected anymore — because of us humans. We’ve created that fragment, and animals can’t move across the landscape from one park to the next.

“So, we mimic that, by moving animals from this park to the next.”

African Parks and GKEPF noted that the project could not have taken place without consensus, collaboration, and expert inputs from KNP and SANParks counterparts.

Along with strengthening rhino metapopulations, the region of South Africa where rhinos were moved to is an ideal habitat for southern white rhino. African Parks and GKEPF explained that the fertile and water-rich grasslands of the selected release areas are ideal for ensuring optimal rhino health and population growth.

A rhino takes cautious steps out of its crate after arriving in the Greater Kruger system. (Photo: Cathan Moore)

Rhino safety

Through a decade-long collaborative effort to combat rhino poaching, reserves and stakeholders have developed and shared a wealth of expertise, said African Parks and GEPF — which has significantly bolstered their ability to proactively and effectively address poaching threats and safeguard the species.

With the safety of these translocated rhinos at the forefront for everyone involved in the process, Markus Hofmeyr, wildlife vet and Director of the Rhino Recovery Fund explained, “The rhino will come in dehorned, which is a very effective way to decrease the poaching risk in this landscape. We’re at a point where this risk is well-calculated.

“This will be the first reintroduction of rhino into this landscape in about 50 years.” DM

Rewilded rhino approaching water hole following its translocation. (Photo: Rifumo Mathebula)

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