As a 231-foot Boeing 747 neared its end over Kigali International Airport in Rwanda’s capital, Jess Groner, park manager at Akagera National Park, looked on with apprehension. He’s been following the progress the passengers of this voyage have made since they boarded a fleet of cargo trucks at the Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa, nearly 30 hours ago. When the charter flight was delayed for eight hours at Durban airport, he worried that passengers, drugged and confined in individual boxes, would become dehydrated.
After the plane landed, Gruner’s first question to the six vets who disembarked was, “Are they okay?” The team immediately reassured him that the passengers – 30 southern white rhinos – were adorable. They did well despite their long transnational journey.
“It was a huge relief,” Groner says.
But before the rhinos could take their first gulp of water and bite off the native herbs in their new homeland, they had to be loaded onto a waiting fleet of trucks and driven 60 miles east to Akagera. The moment of truth came 10 hours later, when the first rhinoceros emerged from its box and into a grass enclosure at the northern end of the park. “Oftentimes they can overreact and get carried away,” Groner says. “Seeing the first rhinoceros come out quietly was a memory I will always keep.”
On November 27, the rhino, 19 female and 11 male, became the first southern white rhino to live in the wild in Rwanda in recorded history. The transfer came on the heels of nearly a decade The white rhino population is declining This is due, in large part, to poaching in South Africa. The species is listed as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN. Conservationists hope that transported ungulates will stabilize Akagera.
“We introduce white rhinos to a safe environment and spread the risks to the species as a whole because they are in a new environment,” Groner says. “It’s a milestone in environmental conservation.”
Akagera has been home to rhinos since the reintroduction of black rhinos to the park in 2017, but perhaps due to the limited number, the criminal gangs that organize poaching in South Africa have yet to target the area. According to Gruner, most of the illegal activities in the park are small-scale “consumer poaching” – a member of a nearby community collecting firewood or hunting antelopes.
The Rwandan government is not naive about the dangers of increasing the rhino population. In anticipation of the threat of poaching, they implemented strict security measures. Newly transported rhinos were each fitted with a site transmitter, an anti-dog poaching unit was added to the park’s law enforcement, and regular helicopter surveillance missions would keep an eye on while the herd dispersed.
“Unfortunately, rhinos are persecuted internationally. We had to beef up our security,” Groner says.
Although herd security and control will undoubtedly be costly, the Rwandan government believes that rhinos are a valuable resource. Unlike black rhinos, which prefer wooded habitats, white rhinos prefer to spend the day grazing open grasslands.
“White rhinos are a huge tourist asset because they roam the open plains where they are most visible,” Groner says.
Protection and prosperity
Over the past decade, the government has embarked on an ambitious mission to reform the once-abandoned national park system and become a leader in wildlife conservation. In 2010, the country handed over management of Akagera to African Parks, a non-profit organization that specializes in managing protected areas across the continent. Since that time, the park’s wildlife has recovered and both lions and black rhinos have been reintroduced.
Of course, the goal of the relocation was twofold, and in addition to restoring an ecosystem that had been degraded by agricultural encroachment, the government hoped to boost the burgeoning tourism industry.
“When African Parks took over the park, it was making barely $200,000 a year,” says Ariela Kageruka, the RDB’s acting chief tourism officer. “By the time COVID came in 2019, the park was making $2 million annually.”
Much of the hike’s proceeds were reinvested in tourism to the park, but just as importantly, it was used to support its neighboring communities. Ten percent of the income generated from tourism is given to a fund that is distributed to the surrounding communities.
“It’s a huge circle. Rhinos come to Akagera to support conservation, but they also support tourism, which in turn supports communities, which comes back to supporting conservation,” says Groner.
We hope this fair approach will also dissuade community members from participating in poaching schemes. The future of the white rhino depends on it.