In 2008, a survey of Garamba National Park (NP) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) concluded that the last wild Northern white rhinos in the Park (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) had died, and that this sub-species of white rhino was now extinct in the wild. Now, white rhinos are back in Garamba, as 16 Southern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum simum) have been relocated to the park from &Beyond’s Phinda Private Game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal.
The translocation by African Parks, which has managed Garamba NP since 2005, is part of the overall programme of rehabilitating and, where appropriate, restocking the parks they manage under contracts with the governments of the African states in which the parks are situated. The move took place in cooperation with the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) and the Canadian mining company Barrick Gold, which funded the rhino relocation.
Barrick operates the Kabila gold mine in North eastern DRC. The rhinos were flown from South Africa to Kabila mine’s airstrip and then trucked on to Garamba. Barrick has mines across gold-producing areas of Africa and has put money into this project as part of its sustainability policy. Perhaps also to salvage their reputation, which was damaged by violence at the North Mara Mine in Tanzania, which Barrick now runs, where there was conflict between workers, local residents, and the Tanzanian police for several years, in which 77 people died and 304 were wounded, according to Rights and Accountability in Development, which monitors the activities of multinational mining giants.
These translocations are just the start for Garamba National Park
African Parks’ CEO, Peter Fearnhead, said, “This relocation is the start of a process whereby the Southern white rhino, as the closest genetic alternative, can fulfil the role of the Northern white rhino in the landscape.”
This relocation to Garamba, and any in the future, is restoring (even though with a different sub-species) white rhinos to a region that was at the heart of the former Northern white rhino range. Fearnhead has said he lamented the disappearance of the subspecies, describing conservation efforts 20 years ago as “too little, too late”. However, it is hard to see what could have been done in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Garamba found itself beset by massive poaching for rhino horn and the victim of conflicts within the DRC. Poachers and armed groups alike poached rhinos for their horns, hide, and meat.
The head of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, Yves Milan Ngangay, described the release of the rhinos and plans for future relocations as, “a testament to our country’s commitment to biodiversity conservation.“
More Southern white rhinos are expected to be sent to Garamba National Park in the future. These, too, are likely to be sourced from South Africa, which despite the heavy poaching there over the last decade, continues to hold the world’s largest white rhino population at an estimated 12,968 animals (down by more than 5,000 animals from 10 years ago).
Private owners in South Africa have about 6,300 rhinos, spread across hundreds of ranches or reserves, and making up approximately 40% of South Africa’s total rhino population. They have already been the source of relocations to Malawi, Rwanda, and, though not hugely successfully, Chad. All have involved African Parks partnering with South African reserves, the wildlife authorities of the host countries, and wealthy financial backers.
South Africa’s white rhinos – a pool for translocations?
South Africa’s rhino have been hit hard by poaching and there are continuing problems with protecting both white and black rhinos. Nearly 10,000 rhinos have been killed in the country since 2007, and while poaching numbers have dropped in recent years, it remains an unacceptably high proportion of the population.
Pressure from poaching and in turn, the soaring costs security, are increasingly being felt by private owners. It is estimated that private owners spend approximately ZAR30,000 per rhino on security, which is thought to be significantly more than South African National Parks. The high spend on security may have helped anti-poaching, but it has also reduced the number of owners continuing to keep rhinos.
The costs and threats of rhino ownership explain why South Africa’s largest private rhino owner, John Hume, put his Platinum Rhino Ranch, and the 2,000+ rhinos that go with it, up for sale this year. Hume was paying out an estimated £2 million a year to protect his rhinos.
Relocations – prospects and problems
Relocation is difficult and can result in deaths in transit or soon after release, due to stress and other factors.
Of the six black rhinos that were moved from South Africa to Zakouma National Park, in Chad in 2018, four died within six months. None of the rhinos were poached, and post-mortem analysis did not indicate infectious disease or plant toxicity, either. But all four had low fat reserves, and the statement by African Parks shared, “low fat reserves suggest that maladaptation by the rhinos to their new environment is the likely underlying cause, although tests to be undertaken on brain and spinal fluid may shed additional light on the exact cause of deaths”. The two remaining rhinos relocated are being carefully monitored. Martin Rickleton of African Parks told me that, “they have successfully adapted to their new environment, marking the beginning of a thriving micro-population within the park. Building on this success, we are considering additional rhino relocations to Zakouma.”
Still, African Parks appear to have been successful in moving black rhino to Malawi’s Liwonde and Majete National Parks and Southern white rhinos to Akagera in Rwanda. One must hope, for the future of the white rhinos in Africa, that the recent Garamba relocation is successful and that the availability of white rhino from South Africa’s private owners can be turned from a problem into an opportunity.
Martin explained that following the Chad translocation, future relocations “will be conducted with the utmost care and attention to ensure the well-being of the rhino, incorporating the lessons we learned from the initial translocation in 2018… A comprehensive assessment has been conducted, leading to the selection of an optimal release site that provides essential resources and diverse habitats. We have also taken seasonality into account.” She stressed that “genetic diversity will be a priority during the translocations”, and added that African Parks is following guidance from the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group, planning to “introduce batches of black rhino over the course of a couple of years, ensuring a varied gene pool that can better match the conditions in Zakouma. These measures collectively aim to increase the overall success of the translocations while minimizing stress and poor adaptation to the new environment.”
African Parks will also be aware of the botched rhino relocation of 11 black rhino from Lake Nakuru to Tsavo – all eleven died. On 26 July 2018, the Hon. Najib Balala, Cabinet Secretary for the Kenyan Ministry for Tourism and Wildlife published the initial results of the independent inquiry into the deaths. The inquiry revealed that ten of the rhinos died as a result of multiple stress syndrome, intensified by salt poisoning, dehydration, starvation and gastric issues, which resulted from higher water salinity and less suitable browse for the rhinos. The Ministry statement added that the 11th rhino, weakened and stressed by the poorly executed relocation, was killed by lions. No relocations have been reported in Kenya since, and at the time Save the Rhino’s CEO, Cathy Dean, said that this was “a truly tragic situation, we must learn from it”. African parks told me that are making every effort to ensure that the Zakouma problems are solved and that future relocations work well and help restore populations that were depleted or destroyed by the actions of poachers or by conflict.
Relocations are vital if rhinos are to be brought back to areas from which they disappeared
As Save the Rhino said after the Tsavo tragedy, “Moving rhinos from one place to another is essential to ensure good genetic diversity across the population and to re-establish populations in areas where they had previously been poached to local extinction. Of course, we must have solid plans for how rhino relocations happen, but we must also understand the impact of where we are moving them to, and the overall ambition for the entire population.” A good reminder that saving rhinos is also about not just individuals but the whole population of back and white rhinos in Africa.
After all, the Southern white rhino was on the brink of extinction in the wild but was saved by judicious management at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in South Africa, and then a long programme of reintroductions across much of its former range in southern Africa.
Professor Keith Somerville is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (University of London), and a fellow of the Zoological Society of London. He has written books on the ivory trade, human-lion, human-hyena and human-jackal coexistence and conflict and is now writing a book for Pelagic Publishers on the African rhino species.