/ 9 June 2024

120 captive rhinos moved to the Greater Kruger wild

The animals, formerly owned by rhino breeder John Hume, are expected to significantly boost biodiversity in their new home. Photo: Michael Dexter

One hundred and twenty captive-bred southern white rhinos have been successfully translocated to private reserves along the western boundary of the Kruger National Park, to begin their new lives in the wild.

In the first reintroduction of rhino into this landscape in about 50 years, African Parks announced on Friday that it had donated 120 of the herd of 2 000 rhinos that formerly belonged to controversial rhino breeder John Hume to member reserves of the Greater Kruger Environmental Protection Foundation (GKEPF) in Mpumalanga and Limpopo. 

“It is a special moment to translocate these rhinos into a wild habitat in which they can thrive,” said Sharon Haussmann, the chief executive of the GKEPF. “What makes it more special is that some of these rhinos, either directly or through their progeny, come from this landscape.”

In September last year, African Parks purchased Hume’s Platinum Rhino farm, the world’s largest captive rhino breeding operation, following his failed auction. Through its Rhino Rewild initiative, it seeks to rescue and rewild the rhino, which formerly roamed on Hume’s ranch in the North West, into secure protected areas in Africa over the next 10 years, “ultimately helping to de-risk the future of the species”. 

Consensus, collaboration 

The GKEPF is an alliance of nine private reserves, one provincial park and one national park, which aims to service the protection needs of the western and eastern buffers of the Kruger National Park and the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier National Park

While the rhinos will not be released into the Kruger itself, but into private game reserves along its western boundary, the project could not have happened without consensus, collaboration, as well as expert input from Kruger and South African National Parks counterparts, Haussmann said.

African Parks said the strategic placement of the rhino in private reserves bordering the Kruger “strengthens the rhino metapopulation and lays the groundwork for potential future collaboration as the Kruger continues its fight against poaching”.

Haussmann described the translocation as the “culmination of a collective landscape effort”, including all the GKEPF member reserves: Timbavati, Balule, Klaserie, Umbabat, Thornybush, Sabi Sand Nature Reserve, Mala Mala, and Sabi Game Reserve and its open system partners — the Kruger National Park and Manyelet.

“The rewilding itself bears testament to the cumulative knowledge, partnerships and insights of a protracted period of anti-poaching efforts in the Greater Kruger landscape,” she added. 

“That the benefits so clearly outweigh the risks presents a significant opportunity for rewarding the efforts of everyone who has remained committed to safeguarding rhino populations amid extremely challenging circumstances over the past 10 to 15 years.”

‘Sleepless nights’

Moving 120 rhinos is an enormous undertaking in every way, and has taken “many, many sleepless nights” and extensive funding, Haussmann said. 

The reintroduction will augment the existing rhino population in the Greater Kruger and ensure these rhinos are fulfilling their role in their natural environment. This was the vision from the start, chief executive of African Parks Peter Fearnhead said.

“Despite significant pressures, GKEPF members have played a critical role in the conservation of the Greater Kruger landscape providing an important buffer to the Kruger and we support their commendable progress in protecting rhino populations in their native range,” Fearnhead said.

Haussmann agreed that the Rhino Rewild initiative provides an opportunity to boost the growth rate of existing populations. “The Greater Kruger is an ideal habitat for large numbers of white rhinos. The initial translocation of 120 rhino presents a significant opportunity to increase white rhino population numbers in habitats where they were once found at a higher density.”

The private reserves in the Greater Kruger have, “through resilience, partnerships, knowledge, skills and collaboration, proven their ability to protect rhino” in the landscape. 

This region is also an ideal habitat for southern white rhino as the fertile and water-rich grasslands of the selected release areas are ideal for ensuring optimal rhino health and population growth, she added.

“Through a decade-long collaborative effort to combat rhino poaching, reserves and stakeholders have developed and shared a wealth of expertise. This has significantly bolstered their ability to proactively and effectively address poaching threats and safeguard the species.”

Poaching losses stabilised 

According to Markus Hofmeyr, wildlife vet and director of the Rhino Recovery Fund, the rhino will be dehorned, decreasing the risk of poaching. “We’re at a point where this risk is well calculated,” he said.

Haussmann said that poaching losses in the Greater Kruger have stabilised, with a subsequent growth of rhino numbers in the private reserves. Years of dealing with poaching have provided people in the landscape with the resilience, partnerships, knowledge, skills and means to protect these rhinos in the most effective way possible.

A primary reason for the Greater Kruger being selected as an initial release site is the security track record of the reserves and their proven capability, resources and capacity to protect rhino. 

“The reserve security and APUs [anti-poaching units] certainly understand the responsibility of protecting these, and all, rhino on the reserves, and they will continue their exemplary efforts to protect all rhino in the landscape,” Haussmann said.

The animals will be fitted with trackers to monitor their movements as they adapt to the new environment. Extensive geofencing has been put in place to alert reserve management and inform necessary security interventions.

The rhino will be notched to aid in individual identification. All rhinos in the system are already continuously monitored on the ground by rangers on patrol, through arrangements with field guides, camera traps and aerial monitoring, she added.

This data is collated by GKEPF and ecologists on member reserves and these measures will be implemented for these additional rhinos. This monitoring is agreed upon by GKEPF and African Parks and is a requirement of the rewilding programme.

Sentinel species

Haussmann noted that previous rhino losses are being offset with the introduction of these rhinos into an environment “where we are now able to better address the threats” and would increase the genetic diversity of rhinos in the landscape.

Ecologically, rhinos can be seen as a sentinel species — and are typically the first species to be poached out of natural systems, acting as a warning sign of the further degradation of an area. 

“However, they are also typically the last species to be reintroduced into an area that has been secured, signalling conservation success and renewed hope. Given their size, rhinos are ‘ecosystem engineers’ and larger rhino populations present an opportunity to restore these mega-herbivores’ natural role in the ecosystem. 

“For instance, where rhinos graze, they leave behind shorter grass suitable for small antelope, who in turn provide prey for predators. Rhino dung and middens help to disperse seeds and provide nutrients to help multiple other species thrive.

“People travel, often great distances, to see rhinos, and this is the largest free roaming rhino population in the world. By bolstering this population, we are providing a degree of sustainability to the tourism potential of the area.”

On the ecological value of rhinos in nature, Donovan Jooste, the project manager of Rhino Rewild, said: “A question that we often get is what is the monetary value of these animals? We have to look past their monetary value, at what the ecological value of these animals is.

“A rhino population in the North West at that scale [John Hume’s captive breeding operation] isn’t contributing ecologically to biodiversity, to shaping landscapes, towards tourism and community initiatives where communities and protected areas can actually reclaim a stake in the Big Five or in rhino as a species in abundance where they should be.” 

This is the “exciting part of what we’re doing”, Jooste said. 

“In five years, in six years time, the populations that we’ve augmented or the new populations that we’ve established for areas that are rhino-ready and have the ability to maintain rhino, it’s contributing massively to biodiversity. In that sense, we’re contributing massively to tourism, communities and the ownership thereof,” he added. 

Other species will also benefit from the security initiatives being ploughed into safeguarding the rhino. “And that’s where we want to see ourselves in the next 10 years, knowing that these rhino are not only safe, but they absolutely are playing their ecological role in open systems, contributing to a much bigger thing than just having rhino there.”