Life in the Bush

Black Rhino Expansion Project – Munyawana Game Reserve 2004

Black Rhino Expansion Project – Munyawana Game Reserve 2004

The original endemic home of the highly endangered Black Rhino (Diceros Bicornis) and the white rhino (Ceratotherium Simum) is found in the northern reaches of the province of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

In 2003, Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Parks Board, the custodians of the provincially owned game reserves (Ndumu, Tembe Elephant Park, Tala, Weenen, Hluhluwe, Umfolozi, Eastern and Western Shores of the greater St Lucia Wetland) in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, were faced with a diminishing population of black rhinos throughout their provincial game reserves. Not from poaching, but from a more sinister natural phenomenon.

Old, “past their sell-by-date” black rhino bulls continued their territorial vigilance to such an extent that the young, fertile cows were not achieving their natural breeding cycle when they came into oestrous (on heat). This was due to a number of the old, territorially dominant bulls being impotent, and also precluding the younger, virile bulls from mating with the fertile cows. This led to a stagnating population with very few new calves being born and an implosion of the gene pool.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), under the highly capable stewardship of the veterinarian, Dr Jacques Flammand, teamed up with the Ezemvelo KZN Parks Board in a joint collaboration to forge new partnerships with private landowners who were willing, capable and owned no less than 20,000 hectares of secured land with suitable habit for black rhino. In August 2004, the first 15 out of a total of 18 virile, fertile, young black rhino were captured and brought from each of the Ezemvelo game reserves, to be temporarily housed at the Umfolozi game capture pens, pending their relocation to The Munyawana Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Much was learned about relocating rhinos through this exercise. Particularly after the disastrous attempts to relocate white rhino into Botswana in 1991, when four animals were released on Chiefs Island and simply disappeared without trace! Poaching was ruled out as a cause of their disappearance and it was eventually concluded that rhino, being highly territorial animals, fastidiously mark their territories by means of dung middens and leaving scent trails of dung, which they collect by scraping their feet through those fresh middens. The Botswana rhino had simply continued walking, in search of a territorial demarcation, and had failed due to the fact that rhino had last been seen in Botswana nearly 100 years ago.

In an effort to avoid similar problems, a pre-allocation of territories for specific, genetically identified males and females, rhino-specific dung was carefully collected in 220 litre drums, a day or so preceding their release into their new homes. On the morning preceding the rhino releases, the drums of rhino-specific dung were dumped at the release site, to coincide with specifically determined rhino.

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To facilitate safe travel, rhino are injected with a sedative and, on arrival at their release site, injected again with an antidote. This devil’s cocktail, coupled with the usual, aggressive characteristics of black rhino, is simply a recipe for a hangover and a guaranteed bad-tempered, highly destructive black rhino, as it bursts out of the steel transport container!

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The animals quickly discovered the dung, which had been strategically planted, and immediately assumed that they had probably just had a bad dream and they were already in their home territory. Most of the animals settled permanently in their allocated areas.

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The Black Rhino Expansion Project has proved a resounding success. This is one example of man’s intervention in nature that has turned out exceptionally well for the animals involved.