- South Africa's shy and cranky black rhino population received a boost this week with the announcement of a multi-million rand cooperation that is to increase grazing land availability for the rhinos. Thus, it is hoped, also the rhino population will increase.
A new partnership between the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife - one of Africa's most successful rhino custodians - this week was announced. Together, the environmentalist groups are to launch a project to boost the numbers of South Africa's black rhino population.
The new Black Rhino Range Expansion Project aims to increase numbers of the critically endangered animals by increasing the land available for their conservation, thus reducing pressure on existing reserves and providing new territory in which they can breed, according to information released by WWF today.
- We're looking for strategic partnerships with landholders within the species' historic range, initially in KwaZulu-Natal and thereafter further afield, says WWF's project leader Dr Jacques Flamand. "The landholders won’t necessarily have been traditionally involved in conservation and they could be from the private, community or state sectors."
Once partnerships have been formalised, founder populations of about 20 black rhino will be released simultaneously on to the land. Experience has shown that releasing relatively large groups simultaneously is optimal for rapid population growth.
Black rhino used to be so common in Africa that it was not unusual to encounter dozens in a day. But by the 1960s, they had been hunted down to a fraction of their former numbers, and then a massive poaching wave fuelled by the Asian and Middle Eastern rhino horn market wiped out 96 percent of the remaining population in just 20 years. By 1992, there were less than 3000 black rhino left in the wild.
Since then, the catastrophic decline has levelled off and black rhino numbers have slowly increased in heavily protected reserves. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has a world-class track record in white rhino conservation and is also one of Africa's most successful black rhino custodians with about 530 of the subspecies Diceros bicornis minor in its care, but the provincial conservation organisation is running out of space in which the species can breed up quickly.
Ecologists estimate that for the population growth rate to remain high, the number of black rhino in any area should be kept below 75 per cent of the area's ecological carrying capacity. Some protected areas are possibly already nearing or at carrying capacity.
Rapid population growth can mean the difference between survival and extinction for an endangered species. In South Africa there was a rapid growth of the overall black rhino population between 1989 and 1996 followed by a levelling off. If the rapid growth had been maintained for just five more years, South Africa could possibly now have another 250 to 300 black rhino.
Security of existing and new black rhino populations will always be a top priority and a major component of the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project in the continuation of WWF’s funding in this area.
But focusing exclusively on keeping existing animals safe at the expense of growth "is like keeping your money under the bed in case you get robbed on the way to the bank," says Richard Emslie of the African Rhino Specialist Group.
- What on the surface might seem a safe, low-risk strategy could be anything but, he adds. "It is far more prudent to invest in real growth. Ten years down the line the key question should be 'How many rhinos are there?' not 'How many rhinos have been poached?'"
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