Rhino conservation in Africa will take an exciting leap forward this year with the move of six black rhino to the world-famous Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. This is the first group of 32 eastern black rhino that are being repatriated from South Africa to Tanzania during the next five years. This will be the biggest relocation of this kind ever.
The eastern black rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli) is the most endangered of the three remaining subspecies of black rhino, with around 700 remaining in the wild, and less than 70 in Tanzania. This reintroduction will bolster the transnational Serengeti-Mara population, making it the largest free-ranging population of eastern black rhino.
The rhino being returned to the Serengeti are the descendants of animals that were captured in Tsavo in Kenya in 1961 and moved to South Africa. This was one of the efforts to preserve the sub-species during a poaching wave in the 1960’s. These animals have been maintained as an isolated population by South African National Parks (SANParks). For decades conservationists have recommended that these rhino be moved back to their home region and allowed to intermingle and interbreed with the indigenous rhino of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. The 32 rhino will be introduced as a new sub-population in the Serengeti National Park where they will create a link to an existing sub-population of eastern black rhino and hopefully bridge the gap to another. Moving these rhinos to Tanzania will considerably boost efforts to save this subspecies.
This project is a partnership between the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA), the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI, South African National Parks (SANParks), Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and the Grumeti Fund (GF). FZS is the facilitating partner providing the technical expertise for the security preparations, logistics, translocation, release and post-release monitoring and follow-up.
Over the last sixty years, Africa’s black rhino population plummeted by more than 90%. As recently as 1970, 60,000 black rhino roamed the continent. By 1993, uncontrolled poaching for rhino horn had reduced this to fewer than 2,300. Today, through increased security efforts and active management within protected areas (including private and community-owned lands), they have increased to just over 4,200 individuals.
Africa was once home to four subspecies of the black rhino, Diceros bicornis. Within the past decade one of these subspecies, the western black rhino of Cameroon (Diceros bicornis longipes) is believed to have gone extinct. The remaining three subspecies are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, with the east African populations listed on CITES Appendix I. These three subspecies are:
- the south-western or desert black rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis), with approximately 1,400 individuals in Namibia and South Africa
- the southern black rhino (Diceros bicornis minor) with approximately 1,800 individuals in South Africa, Zimbabwe, southern Tanzania, and reintroduced populations in Malawi, Botswana and Zambia,
- the eastern black rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli), the most endangered of the remaining three subspecies with fewer than 700 individuals remaining in Kenya and Tanzania (and the small out of range population in South Africa). Currently the only surviving wild populations of D. b. michaeli are in Kenya, (approximately 635 individuals in 16 areas), and northern Tanzania (approximately 70 individuals in three areas). It is of particular concern that all of these subpopulations have fewer than 100 individuals, rendering them susceptible to the risks of extinction inherent in small populations.
The translocated animals will be released into an area where there are currently no rhino, but which is close enough to existing populations to allow interbreeding in the future. This area was known to have a healthy population of black rhino in the 1970’s and was initially selected using a model that integrated historical and current data to predict appropriate reintroduction sites within the ecosystem. This has since been validated using the IUCN-AfRSG approved habitat quality assessment technique that was tested in the Serengeti during its development.
The logistics of the operation are being managed by FZS who have previously partnered with SANParks and the Zambian authorities to reintroduce 25 black rhino into Zambia. The rhino are moved five to six at a time in large transport aircraft after spending 5-6 weeks in bomas getting used to their transport crates. Once in Tanzania they will then be habituated to the new browse and monitored closely by TANAPA rangers and ecologists in the Serengeti before being released. During the two-week boma period in the Serengeti radio-transmitters will be implanted in their horns and they will be vaccinated against trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness). Prior to release a temporary fence will be established around the release area to attempt to restrict any urge to move too far to look for familiar territory. After 4-6 weeks the temporary fence will be removed and the rhino allowed to range freely. At this stage intensive post-release monitoring using radio-telemetry will be undertaken by a monitoring team.
The translocation itself will be undertaken according to IUCN-AfRSG reintroduction guidelines, and as per best practice. It will adhere to Tanzanian veterinary import requirements, South African veterinary export requirements and CITES regulations.
The security of the rhino is being addressed by a comprehensive training and foot-patrol programme. The majority of field rangers in the Serengeti National Park underwent special basic field ranger training courses and a select rhino protection unit successfully completed specialist tactical training in the release area. This will ensure that the release area is well secured and the law enforcement team well trained and motivated.
In the past two decades black rhino from healthy source populations have been successfully reintroduced in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Zambia. The biggest international translocation effort of black rhino from one wild population to another to date has been the 2003 - 2010 reintroduction of Diceros bicornis minor from South Africa to North Luangwa National Park in Zambia. This was the first reintroduction of a viable population to a former range state where they had been poached to extinction. North Luangwa is now home to a population of twenty-two healthy, breeding black rhinos and the final five animals from South Africa will be moved in May 2010. The proposed Tanzania repatriation will be bigger than any previous translocation effort, representing the biggest population to be moved together, the farthest distance, and has the potential to bring substantial benefit to Tanzania’s tourism industry.
The arrival of these rhino back in Tanzania should be celebrated locally, nationally and worldwide. It represents a huge victory for collaboration and cooperation between African nations, a watershed moment for indigenous species being returned to their home range, and a solid commitment to natural resource conservation and tourism-based rural development in northern Tanzania.
The wildlife industry is the cornerstone of Tanzania’s economy. Returning rhino populations to healthy numbers would help restore one of the flagship species of the ecosystem, and would help ensure northern Tanzania’s viability as a destination where tourists can see all of Tanzania’s native flora and fauna.
Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA)
Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism
Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI)
South African National Parks (SANParks)
Singita Grumeti Fund (GF)
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS)