Breeding the Black Rhino back

The project increases the range of the critically endangered rhino population. (Photo: Martin Harvey)

The project increases the range of the critically endangered rhino population. (Photo: Martin Harvey)

In 2003, Dr Jacques Flamand was asked to draft a plan to address the lack of growth in the black rhino population. The black rhino is a notoriously slow breeder: cows only produce one calf every three to five years. They are also solitary animals and require a large amount of land to feel comfortable enough to breed. 

Through WWF SA (World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa), the Black Rhino Range Expansion project works to increase the range and numbers of the critically endangered black rhino population.  

At the time, poaching was not the core issue. In the decade or so since, the landscape has changed. The project works differently to other anti-rhino poaching nongovernmental organisations. “Our tack is to get [black rhino] to breed faster than they are poached,” says Flamand. “The solution is to create large enough areas of land to accommodate enough rhino.” 

In the beginning they created agreements to amalgamate area spaces of 20 000 hectares, the optimum area for rhino. Breeding rhino are then trans-located into the area, generally in populations of 20. 

“We introduce 20 at the same time, because newcomers would get killed by the more established rhino. By doing this, we are also able to bring different groups in from different reserves.” 

To create more space, landowners and conservation areas sign a custodian agreement, dropping fences and opening up neighbouring land to accommodate the growing population. 

Since 2003, 10 new populations have been created; 160 black rhino have been relocated to safer areas and more than 60 calves are growing to adulthood. The land that has been made available in the KwaZulu-Natal region has led to a significant increase and the rhino population now numbers 500. 

The custodian agreement asks landowners to assume responsibility for the rhino. With poaching at an all-time high, this has become a lot more difficult. “The long-term investment for landowners is that they will own half of each progeny. When the project started, it was easier to get people on board. Luckily, though, we are still getting people who wish to participate.”

Now it’s about finding more land to accommodate the growing population. “We’d started with the best land areas. Now we need new places. There isn’t any more land to buy, so we create more partnerships and facilitate neighbours coming together,” says Flamand. 

With the continual growth in black rhino population, the project also donates R1-million a year to anti-poaching units, to protect donor populations and the sites they breed in.