The seventh black rhino population, established by the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, was recently released after an epic 1500 kilometre trip across the country. 19 of the critically endangered animals were moved from the Eastern Cape to a new location in Limpopo province.
"This was possible because of the far-sightedness of the Eastern Cape Provincial government who were prepared to become partners in the project for the sake of black rhino conservation in South Africa," said WWF's project leader Dr Jacques Flamand. "The operation was difficult due to the number of animals and the long distances involved. But wildlife veterinarians, conservation managers and capture teams from WWF, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency, SANParks and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife worked cooperatively to ensure the success of the translocation. We all learned from one another and were united in a common cause."
"We are a young organisation and this is a great opportunity to be giving something back to the national conservation effort," said Dave Balfour, conservation director of the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency. "We are excited about getting ourselves integrated into national conservation. A critical element of future conservation success will be the ability of agencies with a common interest to work together. This was a great example of that."
A relatively new capture technique was used to airlift some of the rhinos out of difficult or inaccessible areas by helicopter. This entails suspending the sleeping rhino by the ankles for a short trip through the air to awaiting vehicles. "Previously rhinos were either transported by lorry over very difficult tracks, or airlifted in a net. This new procedure is gentler on the darted rhino because it shortens the time it has to be kept asleep with drugs, the respiration is not as compromised as it can be in a net and it avoids the need for travel in a crate over terrible tracks," explains Dr Flamand. "Another advantage is that rhinos can be more easily removed from dangerous situations, for example if they have fallen asleep in a donga or other difficult terrain after being darted. The helicopter translocations usually take less than ten minutes, and the animals suffer no ill effect. All of the veterinarians working on the translocation agreed that this was now the method of choice for the well-being of the animals."
Security of rhinos is a major concern given the current poaching onslaught. Project partners receiving rhinos on their land are only chosen if their security systems are of a high standard. "Translocating rhinos always involves risk, but we cannot keep all our eggs in one basket. It is essential to manage black rhino populations for maximum growth as it is still a critically endangered species and this is what the project does by creating large new populations which we hope will breed quickly," concludes Dr Flamand.
The WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project aims to increase the range and numbers of black rhino in South Africa and has created seven significant black rhino populations in eight years. Close to 120 black rhino have been translocated to date.