Black rhino, charcoal and satellites

Black rhino, charcoal and satellites

 (A version of this article was published originally in The Horn, Autumn 2013. Author: Pierre Du Preez, Chief Conservation Scientist: Wildlife Research, Rhino Co-ordinator, Namibian Ministry of Environmental and Tourism.)

So what do black rhino, charcoal and satellites have in common? I will start in Namibia’s Etosha National Park (ENP) in 2009, where above-average rainfall meant lush vegetation, mud-holes filled with water and fat happy rhinos.

The rains continued through 2010 and even into the 2011 rainy season. Every year, more and more plant material built up and Park management did not realise they were sitting on a time bomb.

Adjacent to ENP, farmers produce charcoal, mostly for barbeques. In late 2011, a spark from a charcoal kiln ignited a field outside the Park. With the high fuel load from the dead plant material, there was no stopping the fire, which jumped the fire break on the Park’s southern boundary and roared out of control.

The Park management had never been confronted by a fire of this magnitude and they made the fatal decision to stop the fire. As the fire was burning towards a fire break they decided to start a back-burn that would hopefully extinguish the field fire. With flames leaping up in the air, the two fires met and – after a brief battle – both lost and died. Happy faces all around but then it dawned: rhino, giraffe, kudu, lion, elephant and numerous smaller species had tried to run away from the first fire and became trapped. Confused by the smoke and the flames, with nowhere to escape to, 30 rhino lost their lives.

After several discussions, a decision was taken for future fire management: ENP would use spot ignition to ignite fires earlier in the cold-dry period, to ensure a mosaic effect with burnt and un-burnt patches. This would result in significantly reduced fuel loads and, even if there was an accidental fire, the effects would not be as severe as the 2011 fiasco.

A year before the fire, MET’s Wildlife Research, in partnership with African Wildlife Tracking, had started developing a bracelet satellite for rhinos. We decided to deploy one bracelet on a pregnant female and another on a mature bull in the area where the experimental burn would take place in 2012. It was important to test the new fire policy and determine the animals’ reaction to a “natural burn”.

One late afternoon, when temperatures and winds were declining, the fire-expert team from Etosha Ecological Institute (EEI) put a match to the grass on the Ekuma plains. The fire started moving west in front of a light easterly wind. Four hours later and approximately five kilometres away, the pregnant female detected the smoke in the light breeze and immediately took evasive action. She first moved north over a small saltpan and reached ENP’s northern boundary. She then moved along the Park’s (unfenced) boundary, first west and then south, keeping the saltpans between her and the fire the entire time. By this point, the fire had passed her position and she moved in behind the fire front.

Further south-west of the ignition point, the bull also detected the approaching fire. He moved immediately to the edge of a pan and kept in area with a low plant biomass. Once the fire passed his position, he also entered the burnt area.

A week after the fire, Johannes Kapner, (a ranger from the EEI) was tasked with finding the two animals. The bull, with his face blackened by soot, was found happily munching away in the burnt area. The female was located elsewhere; she also had a black face but was very content. Her new-born calf must have arrived soon after the fire, and was standing next to her.

Satellite bracelets have helped study the rhino’s behaviour towards fire. This has led to the new method of mosaic burning being used during ENP’s future fire regimes, contributing to the safety of the Park’s wildlife.

Grants

Thanks to USFWS RTCF for its grants of $98,513 for 2012-13 rhino operations in Etosha and $86,860 for 2013 operations in the Kunene Region, Hardap Game Reserve and Waterberg Plateau Park. Opel Zoo gave 4,000 euros, which paid for an infra-red camera. SRI has given £9,647 to help cover bracelets, darts, equipment etc. used during the annual rhin