Following 11 months of preparation and planning, 16 critically endangered Black rhinos were successfully captured, translocated, dehorned and released into the Kingdom of Eswatini on 9 and 10 July 2019. An entire founder breeding group of Black rhinos was acquired during 2018 by Big Game Parks, the National Wildlife Authority for the Kingdom of Eswatini. This demographically complete group consisted of adult breeding bulls and cows, sub adults and small calves.
The rhinos were acquired from a private game ranch in South Africa, where the current rhino horn poaching pressure has driven the protection costs of all rhinos to unsustainable levels, both in the private and public sectors, leaving many rhinos at risk and rhino custodians forced to disinvest in rhino conservation.
While the poaching threat levels are potentially no different in Eswatini, very stringent and deterrent laws, together with solid political will and support for wildlife conservation, has seen Eswatini being able to keep poaching levels relatively low. Only three rhinos have been poached in the Kingdom in the last 26 years, while the Southern African region has lost over 8000 rhinos to poaching since 2008.
Many delays were experienced with this translocation, especially with respect to the bureaucratic nightmare of issuance and re-issuance of permits and ensuring that these animals were moved in the best manner and at an optimal time to minimise unnecessary stress.
The National Park to which the rhinos have been moved has been professionally assessed to have ideal Black rhino habitat and has been highly recommended by the IUCN’s African Rhino Specialist Group as a release site for this species.
Mr Ted Reilly, Chief Executive of Big Game Parks had the following to say:
“After more than 10 years of searching for a suitable group of Black rhinos for this introduction, last week’s relocation marks the end of the first phase of this project. With all 16 rhinos safely captured in South Africa, transported over 700 km across an international border, dehorned and safely released into prime habitat, the second and most arduous phase of monitoring and security has just begun!
“Intensive post-release monitoring is underway to ensure that any problems are quickly identified and that the rhinos all find water and settle into their new home. Additionally, anti-poaching measures have been increased in various forms, including the dehorning of all the rhinos.
“The success or failure of such a logistically complex operation rests very heavily on the team assembled to do the job. In this instance, Big Game Parks spared no effort or cost in ensuring that the best team possible was used for this translocation, and it included some of the world’s most creditworthy, experienced and renowned rhino vets and translocators. Given that calves less than six months of age have been translocated and successfully reunited with their mothers and that no notable injuries or mortalities have occurred, this has been well worth the effort and a testament to the team’s professionalism.
“Additionally, following the export of elephants from Eswatini to three AZA accredited American Zoos (Dallas, Omaha and Sedgwick County Zoo) four years ago, Big Game Parks is pleased to note the continued support of these zoos in funding aspects of Eswatini’s rhino conservation work, including a portion of the costs of the acquisition, translocation and security of these Black rhino, as well as the preparation of the release site for their introduction to Eswatini. This negates the allegations levelled at the zoos and Big Game Parks that the purpose of the elephant export was solely mercenary.
“In light of the fact that only 5000 black rhinos remain on earth, this is a very significant conservation initiative and we are very grateful to all of those that have selflessly contributed their efforts and expertise to this project.”