In early September, nine critically endangered black rhinos were airlifted from South Africa on a Boeing 747 cargo plane, transferred to a massive C-130 Hercules waiting on an airstrip in Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro region, and then flown to the westernmost part of Serengeti National Park.
Their final destination was the 350,000-acre Ikorongo Game Reserve on the edge of the park, where these rhinos that were born and raised in captivity will spend the coming weeks in enclosures until they’re acclimated and ready to be released into the wild. The hope is that the project will begin reseeding this land with a species that’s become nearly extinct here.
The journey marked the first stage of a costly and complex plan that will move an additional five rhinos to Ikorongo from European zoos in 2020. The $7.3 million project — the biggest rhino relocation in Tanzania’s history — includes security, personnel and infrastructure like roads to support the ambitious reintroduction.
The threat of extinction for rhinos across the world is very real. At the start of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of rhinos roamed African savannah and Asian jungle. Today, fewer than 30,000 remain. The main reason for the drastic fall in the population is poaching. Traditional Asian medicine says rhino horn cures everything from hangovers to cancer, despite a dearth of scientific evidence supporting its medical value.
Made from keratin, the same stuff as your fingernails, rhino horns remain among the most valuable wildlife products and a key part of the $23 billion a year poaching industry. Rhino horn can fetch as much as $60,000 for a single kilogram.
The thirst for their horns, combined with the impact of human encroachment into their habitat and resource competition from other species, has decimated Tanzania’s rhino population. In 1970, the country had around 10,000 black rhinos. Today, while accurate numbers are hard to pin down, conservationists estimate that fewer than 100 remain.
It’s not just rhinos, the world is facing a wildlife crisis, with up to 1 million species at risk of extinction over the next few decades due to human actions, according to a landmark U.N.-backed report published in May. Rewilding and relocation projects like Tanzania’s aim to help stem, in whatever small way, these worrying rates of extinction. The objective is to increase the population where it is dangerously low by reintroducing animals to the wild in the hopes that they will breed and also provide benefits to the wider ecosystem.
Rewilding plans and campaigns to boost animal populations exist all over the world: Lynx in the U.K., wolves in Scotland, lions and Asiatic cheetahs in India and Iran, pronghorns (antelope-like animals) in Mexico. But with bureaucracy, scientific challenges, and farmer opposition, most fail to get off the ground. Zoo-raised carnivores, like wolves, can never return to the wild ― but large herbivores, like the rhinos, can.
A key reason the Tanzania relocation is feasible has to do with the land. The reserve is private, owned by the Grumeti Fund and supported by Tanzania’s Ministry of Natural Resources. Grumeti was founded by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones, who purchased the lands that would become the reserve in 2003 and then teamed with safari brand Singita in 2006 to offer tourism in the area. The biggest advantage to the relocation project is the large swaths of uninhabited savannah buffering the park. With no human settlement, and ample habitat, researchers estimate the reserve can support between 100 to 200 rhinos.
But the roots of the scheme, as a private, billionaire-funded project, have also drawn criticism. While this relocation fits into a move toward rewilding, some believe it’s an unsustainable conservation model and benefits tourism more than the species it’s intended to save.
Still, there have already been wins from previous conservation work on the reserve, which focused on restoring habitat and introducing ranger patrols. Between 2003 and 2016, Ikorongo experienced a fourfold increase in wild elephant populations and a tenfold increase in buffalos, according to Stephen Cunliffe, Grumeti’s South African executive director.
But moving 3,000-pound rhinos is something else.
Four veterinarians and a rhino behavior specialist were on hand, first taking the sedated animals by truck from Thaba Tholo Game Farm in South Africa to Johannesburg International Airport, where they began the multi-leg shuttle to the reserve. It took two trips, a staff of 20, and nearly two years of planning to move the five cows and four bulls.
Once the animals arrived at the reserve, they were placed in bomas — traditional enclosures made from thorny acacia branches to keep predators out — where they will stay for several weeks until deemed fit for release into the reserve, Cunliffe said.
These nine aren’t the first relocated rhinos in the reserve. In 2018, a 9-year-old bull named Eric came to Ikorongo from the San Diego Safari Park. He joined another captive-bred female named Laikipia, who arrived from a U.K. reserve in 2007. Eric and Laikipia live in a 276-hectare fenced protective zone within the reserve. They’re expected to be joined by the nine new rhinos before they are released into the wider reserve in the coming months.
The aim is to breathe life back into the local rhino population.
“I believe that our country’s future in conservation of this critically endangered species is bright and hope that our successes will make Tanzania one of the major rhino range states in Africa,” said Philbert Ngoti, Tanzania’s national rhino coordinator.
The trouble is, the process is complicated and dangerous.
“Introducing rhinos into East Africa has proven risky,” said David Blanton, the co-founder and director of Serengeti Watch, a Tanzania-based NGO that serves as a de facto regional watchdog and is unconnected to the relocation project.
In 2017, a rhino reintroduced to Rwanda tragically killed one of the rangers tasked with protecting it.
Last year, 11 rhinos were moved to Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, Blanton said, but all of them died, reportedly from drinking salt water and suffering from dehydration, bacteria and ulcers. Rhino relocation from South Africa to Chad in 2018 saw four out of six rhinos die from malnutrition.
Despite protection, poaching also remains a constant threat. Tanzania moved five rhinos to the Serengeti in 2016, “but just a few months later, one had already been killed by poachers,” said Blanton. “The value of rhino horns makes the animals an extraordinarily lucrative target.”
This go around wasn’t without sacrifice. “One of the males, due to the high stress of the relocation, did not make it,” said Cunliffe. “He suffered an acute heart failure right at the beginning.”
The loss rocked the team.
“It’s a rollercoaster,” admitted Cunliffe. “Imagine the amount of permits, permissions for a project of this complexity. Knowing how few there are left, where every rhino counts, it’s heartbreaking. But if you lose one, as sobering and disappointing as it is, if nine arrive and settle, and in two years we may have four new calves, it’s incredibly successful.”
So, how do you protect these animals? Grumeti employs 115 game scouts based at 18 posts throughout the reserve, uses four detection and tracking dogs, armed routine patrols, a helicopter and an airplane for surveillance, and a drone program. It’s a 24-hour routine. There are also plans for GPS monitoring via beacon signals located throughout the reserve. This is “fortress conservation,” said Blanton.
In poor nations like Tanzania, saving wildlife can mean strange partnerships, said Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, a sustainability economist and rhino expert. “I suspect the reason for this translocation is mostly to increase the tourism viewing value of the area in question.”
While Cunliffe denied it was mainly motivated by tourism, he acknowledged “more interest from guests means more philanthropy,” adding that even a handful of rhinos has major impact to the greater ecosystem and species.
The big unknown when it comes to protecting any wildlife is people. Even with adjacent settlements few and far between, East Africa’s population is booming. Add persistent drought, and talks of dams and highways that could destroy habitat, it’s a region in flux. All are factors affecting rhino population growth. This instability, much of it tied to lack of economic opportunity, also encourages locals to pick up a gun and stalk the bush.
No matter the security, said Sas-Rolfe, “rhinos simply won’t be safe anywhere as long as rhino horn remains such a desirable commodity on black markets.” While there is no single answer to tackling the problem, he said, truly protecting rhinos means eliminating the demand for rhino horn in Asia and providing on-the-ground economic opportunities for locals with incentives to keep the land wild.
Cunliffe said this is happening and locals are on board as partners in this program. Grumeti and Singita say they have created 900 permanent jobs, and 75% of staff are local hires.
He may be right and his employer may be making a big impact. But with such a tenuous setup and so few rhinos, it only takes a few desperate people to shift the balance. That’s why there’s so much intervention, so much on-the-ground presence, so much pressure for success.
With such an investment and with a species hanging by a thread, Cunliffe admitted there are instances his team would intervene, say if a rhino was snared. And that’s where the notion of rewilding gets even more complicated.
How much is too much intervention?
“If it’s not human-induced, we’ll let nature take its course,” he said. “If a rhino is suffering an injury from another rhino, we would try to maximize the chances of survival and reproductive success. When you’re dealing with a critically endangered species, the rules get bent more.”
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