Say cheese

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, autumn 2009. Author: Claire Lewis, Technical Advisor, North Luangwa Conservation Programme)

One of the biggest challenges we face at North Luangwa with the black rhino reintroduction programme is the adaptation phase. We take a number of steps to ensure that this phase is as smooth as possible. Capturing camera-trap images of rhinos is critical to monitoring this process…

Translocating a wild rhino from one environment and plonking them in another is a bit like taking a Sahara dweller and dumping them in Alaska. You wouldn’t know where you were; or where to find water, food, a safe place to sleep; or whether your neighbours were friends or foes!

Using a boma care specialist can assist in the adaptation phase. A boma care specialist is very important to gaining an insight into each individuals’ character prior to, and post, arrival and can provide pointers on a rhino’s general disposition, level of confidence and possible reactions to new and unknown surroundings. Predictions don’t always hold true once the animal is released, but it certainly helps to know a bit more about each individual’s personality.

The translocations to North Luangwa National Park have all taken place towards the end of May. This is the earliest after the rains have finished that a large plane like a Hercules C130 can land on the grass airstrip. Any later on in the year would push the release of the rhinos into drier and drier conditions, giving them even less chance to adapt.

In order to mitigate any drastic drops in condition, we have set up several feed sites around the rhino sanctuaries. These sites are carefully placed in areas that certain individuals frequent. We put out chopped up Kigelia sausage fruits and Euphorbia spp. Stems, as well as bonemeal and salt. If we notice, from rhino scout monitoring reports and photographs, that an animal is not picking up or is losing more condition than we would like, then we also supplement with lucerne (also know as alfalfa; a major fodder crop), sugar cane and sweet potatoes. We don’t aim to offer supplementary feed for the long term, rather, just to help some animals get over their first dry season and through the difficult times. We estimate it takes 12-18 months before an animal has properly adapted to the conditions in North Luangwa. Even once fully adapted, we maintain a close eye on each animal through monitoring patrols.

Each animal is seen by the rhino scouts on average two or three times per month. The scouts take photos and estimate a condition score for each animal (ranking one for very poor, through to five for very fat). They also check dung scrapes and bites taken of vegetation, noting down the species being eaten. We try to leave the rhinos themselves alone as much as possible, so have put in place several remote sensor camera traps at the feed sites and at well-visited crossing points to capture rhinos in action. In March 2009, the dividing fence between two sanctuaries was removed. Speculative bets were placed on which species, and more importantly which rhinos, would cross the great divide. We set up several camera traps along the road that followed the fence but, to date, not one rhino has moved sanctuaries.One of North Luangwa's rhinos approaches a supplementary feeding station, primed with lucerne, and is caught on camera-trap

Credit: North Luangwa Conservation Programme

Just about all the rhinos have had their pictures taken at one time or another, but one female, Twashuka, seems to spend her time rooting out camera boxes and regularly shows up in pictures. She seems unfazed by the flash. Twashuka is generally one of the easier rhinos to track on foot and it’s the more shy individuals, like Kango, that we’d really like to see. Kango makes an appearance about once or twice a year for a few days and then goes back to his normal daily life without the paparazzi in his face! The camera traps have been great at providing us with moments of rhino behaviour not normally seen and they have allowed us to remotely monitor rhino condition without disturbance.