The Black Rhino Range Expansion Project
Project funding has been given to protected areas in KwaZulu-Natal to support their rhino monitoring and security activities. These include ear-notching programmes which enable staff to identify individual animals and monitor the overall population more accurately.
Ear notching is a swift, efficient process. With coordination from a helicopter and staff on the ground, an un-notched rhino is spotted, darted, then "driven" by the helicopter to make sure it runs into an area that is both accessible to staff and not dangerous to itself. Once it has fallen asleep, the helicopter lands nearby and staff run to the animal and quickly notch its ears with a distinctive pattern. As soon as it's done and everyone's up a nearby tree and the helicopter safely airborne, the antidote is administered and the rhino wakes up, none the worse for wear, and runs off. The whole process takes less than 10 minutes.
When park staff encounter black rhino on their patrols, they fill in a special form with details of the individual animal, for example ear-notch patterns, injuries, horn size and whether they have calved. Knowing as much as possible about numbers, territories, calving intervals and age at which calves leave their mothers makes it possible to make informed decisions about black rhino populations and their management.
The project also funds vital equipment such as binoculars, GPS systems, backpacks and sleeping bags for anti-poaching patrols, and rhino monitoring kits. At one reserve, Ndumo, the Project is employing a monitor and field ranger full-time to determine the current status of black rhino in the reserve. The Project also funds veterinary treatment of rhinos that have been injured through human activity, for example by getting caught in snares.
The main part of the project involves identifying potential partners to help fulfill our aim of increasing numbers of black rhino by increasing the land available for their conservation.
Potential partners don't need to have been traditionally involved with conservation, but must hold suitable black rhino habitat with a carrying capacity of 50 to 100 black rhino. This can be up to 20,000 hectares, which is larger than most privately owned properties. To meet the size requirement, fences might have to be dropped between neighbouring landholders.
The Project is looking initially for partners within KwaZulu-Natal, though the potential exists to look further afield at a later date. Landowners interested in becoming partners are visited by Project Leader Dr Jacques Flamand, who assesses the properties according to a set of criteria.
These include ecological carrying capacity for black rhino, security standards, management plans and the possibility of expansion or corridors to other areas with black rhino. The potential to offer economic benefit to local communities is an additional attraction.
Properties that meet the criteria have been short-listed and further assessed by specialist ecologists. The final decision rests with the Board of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. It's hoped that the business model drawn up between the parties will be useful enough to be replicated for future partnerships. When the partnerships have been formalised, founder populations of up to 20 black rhino will be released on to the new site.
The Project's model is that black rhino and management guidelines will be made available by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in exchange for suitable land and the provision of security. Landowners will be custodians of the initial founder population, which will remain the property of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. However, half of the progeny will be owned by the landowners and half by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.
"It should be a win-win scenario for everyone," said Dr Flamand. "In their tradition of conservation excellence, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has made a decision that is in the best interests of black rhino.""It has been really encouraging to see the level of interest from landholders," says Dr Flamand. "Establishing partnerships between landholders with a strong tradition of independence will be a challenge, yet I'm hopeful that the opportunity to be part of a significant conservation story, with such a magnificent animal, will help overcome the obstacles. As well as helping black rhino, the project is an opportunity to get land under more rational conservation as smaller pieces of land can be merged into larger, more ecologically-sensible units."
We are also working with educationalists to help instill a culture of care for our beautiful natural heritage and awareness of the importance of biodiversity. This is being done through teacher workshops where we discuss how best to incorporate environmental knowledge and awareness into the country's new "outcomes-based learning" curriculum. Many teachers are still unsure of the system, so we try to tailor our learning materials to meet their needs and those of their pupils, while at the same time helping to spread environmental awareness.