what it takes to translocate an endangered species

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Rhino transports have become an important tool in the arsenal to protect these endangered animals. Recently, 30 white rhinos were flown to Rwanda from South Africa and introduced to Akagera National Park, in the largest single transfer. It was implemented through a collaboration between the Rwanda Development Board, the African Parks and Tourism Agency, Beyond, and the South African Special Reserve, with funding from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

But moving rhinos to new regions and countries is complex and expensive. Mike Knight, Head of the African Rhino Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has been involved in many relocations over the course of 20 years. Talk to Moina Spooner, of The Conversation Africa, about what it takes.

How many white rhinos are in Africa? And why are they so special?

Well, let’s start with the reason why unicorns are so special.

The rhinoceros plays an essential role in changing the natural environment. If you take the white rhino out of the system, it will change.

When you compare white and black rhinos, they are very different. The white rhino has a weight of 1500 kg, which is a much larger species. They move in small groups and are herders. They are considered environmental engineers, altering habitats by creating grazing lawns, and fending off bush encroachment. By contrast, the smaller (800-1200 kg) black rhinoceros are browsers. They often work alone, are more selective in what they eat, and alter the environment in various ways.

There are two subspecies of the white rhino. Southern and Northern eggs. Between 40 and 50 years ago, there were more whites in the north than in the south, and this is exactly the opposite. We are now just two northern whites, residing in a private reserve in Kenya.

Rhino caretaker Muhammed Doyo with two surviving northern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Reserve, Kenya.
EPA-IFY / Dai Kurokawa

In the late 19th century, the southern white rhino was on the verge of extinction. This was due to overfishing. But in 1895 a small population of less than 100 individuals was discovered in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. After more than a century of protection and good management, there are now about 17,600 white rhinos (as of 2018) living in protected areas and special game reserves. This number is based on continental estimates that we, as a rhinoceros specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meet together every two to three years.

However, this success story is threatened by the illegal trade of the century. Between 2006 and 2020, 10,600 rhinos were lost across the continent. With a few exceptions, rhinos live in smaller, well-protected national parks and reserves.

Why were these rhinos transferred to Rwanda?

The recovery of the white rhino is a remarkable conservation success. This is the place for the recent introduction of the white rhino to Rwanda. Having a population in Rwanda could create a safe new breeding stronghold in East Africa and help ensure the species’ long-term survival in the wild.

For Rwandans and Rwandans, transportation will enhance Akagera’s appeal, contributing to Rwanda’s wildlife economy.

What factors should be considered when transporting a rhino to another country?

Before introducing a species, you need to go through a hierarchical checklist of issues from historical distribution, habitat suitability, disease, law enforcement, sustainability, threats, and political support, to name a few.

Understanding the habitat the animals are moving to and whether it suits them is critical. There is no recent recorded historical record of the white rhinoceros in Rwanda. However, southern white rhinos south of the Zambezi River and northern whites have been recorded in Uganda, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So it’s basically like a new species being introduced into a very good habitat.

Akagera National Park has been assessed to be able to support a large population of around 120 white rhinos and could play an important role in the conservation of the species, especially in East Africa.

Given the threats from poaching, addressing security issues remains of paramount importance as they can undermine the best introductions. African Parks – a not-for-profit conservation organization that has been managing protected areas, including Akagera – has not lost any animals to poaching over the past decade. The introduction of black rhinos to the park in 2017 gave park authorities time to prove they are well-equipped to secure white rhinos as well.

Then we need a suitable number. It’s not Noah’s Ark, you need more than two – ideally we recommend at least 25 unrelated animals to attract residents. This reduces potential social problems and also provides the emerging population with greater genetic diversity to adapt to new conditions.

On the disease front, there have been a number of concerns especially of trypanosomiasis, or trypanosomiasis, as we call it. We know from some past failed introductions, that thrips can have disastrous consequences for white rhinos that remain thrips-gullible. In the case of this introduction, park officials worked under expert veterinary advice to reduce the challenge posed by female warriors by setting up more than 800 tsetse fly traps and exposing rhinos to prevention. The intent is not to eliminate the thrips but instead for the rhino to slowly develop its immunity to the disease.

Any international relocation requires political support from national governments and conservation authorities and must comply fully with international agreements, such as CITES. The governments of South Africa and Rwanda fully support this relocation as it is covered by the General Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries which covers all matters related to biodiversity conservation. As the white rhinoceros is an IUCN regulated species, this introduction has obtained all required export and import permits from CITES.

Animal sourcing is also an important aspect. Who will make those animals available? Is it obtained or should it be donated? South Africa has a vibrant wildlife industry that relies on buying and selling wild animals. The turbidity from one location (as in this case) was ideal from a logistic and animal management perspective.

Then you have to catch them and move them. A lot of time is spent planning this and making sure the animals are treated as best they can. Moving animals across thousands of kilometers is a serious endeavor. With 30 animals, charter jumbo jets are the best way. This requires significant veterinary and logistical coordination to pick up the animals, load them into crates, transport them to the aircraft, load as quickly as possible, unload similarly, transport to the site and release them in good and safe places. The documentation should be in order with customs and immigration officials on both sides to make it as smooth as possible.

Read more: Rhino: Scientists hang it upside down in helicopters – here’s why

Upon their arrival, the animals are placed in owls’ ropes to make them adapt to the different local foods they will encounter. What often happens at this point, because rhinos are not familiar with the ocean or the new diet, is that the animals can lose the condition. The PUMA program may take up to seven weeks.

Once they reach the new habitat, the next concern is safety and making sure people can take care of them and keep an eye on them.

Should rhino transfers to other countries in Africa be encouraged?

As a rhinoceros specialist, I am in favor of relocation. Transfer has been one of the most important tools in our keeping box as it allows us to spread our eggs into multiple baskets nationally and internationally. It has been one of the factors behind the success of rhino conservation efforts in Africa so far.

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