Zimbabwe is home to the world’s fourth largest black rhino population after South Africa, Namibia and Kenya. Nearly one-quarter of the country’s rhinos were slaughtered by organized gangs of poachers between 2007 and 2009, as once again southern African nations faced an upsurge in poaching activity. The renewed poaching activity has been driven primarily by Asian markets and especially by Viet Nam, where rhino horn is not only used as a “blood purifier” to treat the symptoms of over-indulging in alcoholic beverages and rich foods, but is also rumored to be a cure for life threatening diseases such as cancer. In addition, many Vietnamese purchase rhino horn for gifts and as a symbol of status. Meanwhile, the use of powdered rhino horn to reduce fevers remains a traditional remedy in countries like China. Despite the recent increase in demand for horn, rhino management and protection efforts in Zimbabwe’s critical Lowveld region have largely been successful, and black rhino numbers are actually increasing.
In early 2008, poaching in Zimbabwe reached critical levels and rhino numbers in the Lowveld began to decline for the first time since populations were established there in the early 1990s. In response, field teams moved more than 50 black rhinos out of particularly vulnerable areas. The translocation operations dramatically reduced the threat to these animals by placing them in more secure areas. These translocations, combined with improved security, have resulted in a decline in poaching such that births now outnumber losses and the population is again growing.
The Lowveld Rhino Trust (LRT), directed by Raoul du Toit, is the International Rhino Foundation’s partner organization in Zimbabwe. Raoul received the prestigious Sir Peter Scott Award in 2009 and the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2011 in recognition of his many years of commitment to the survival of African rhinos. He is assisted by Lovemore Mungwashu (Operations Coordinator), Natasha Anderson (Rhino Monitoring Coordinator), Simba Chiseva (Community Outreach Coordinator) and Jackson Kamwi (Head Rhino Monitor). The Lowveld Rhino Trust implements a comprehensive conservation program that:
Supports the anti-poaching efforts of the private conservancies in which these Lowveld rhino populations are conserved;
tracks and monitors rhinos on a continual basis to ensure their safety;
undertakes annual rhino management operations, such as ear-notching rhinos, to maintain intensive monitoring of these populations;
treats rhinos with injuries suffered due to poaching or natural causes;
works with conservancy partners to rescue, rehabilitate and return injured or orphaned young rhinos to the wild;
protects rhinos from poachers by translocating animals from high-risk areas to safer locations; and
works with local communities to build support for rhino conservation.
Approximately 80% of Zimbabwe’s black rhinos survive in the Lowveld conservancies. These large tracts of land, converted from cattle ranches to wildlife management areas, operate as wildlife-based businesses that help safeguard the future for a variety of threatened species.
Treating rhinos or moving them from one area to another is not a simple operation or one without risk. Rhinos requiring immobilization are routinely located by tracking. Scouts deploy early in the morning and follow the track until they have visual confirmation of the target rhino. Once it is spotted, an experienced wildlife veterinarian is notified of the animal’s age, sex and estimated condition so that the correct drug dosages can be loaded into tranquilizer darts. The majority of rhino immobilizations are performed from a helicopter so that the process is as quick and safe for the rhinos as possible. If the operation undertaken is a translocation, a truck with rhino crates must be positioned suitably close to the anticipated immobilization site so the rhino can be crated and loaded on the truck as quickly as possible.
Once the ground teams have been adequately directed, usually by a fixed-wing aircraft that orbits overhead, and the darts are ready, the helicopter moves into position so that the veterinarian can dart the rhino. This stage of the operation requires skilled teamwork, as the helicopter must fly low, often in difficult conditions - tall trees, high temperatures and moving targets. The fixed-wing aircraft pilot directs the helicopter pilot as to how the rhino should be driven to create the best darting opportunities and to avoid dangers such as water bodies, steep gullies and rocky terrain.
Once the rhino has been darted and the drugs begin to take effect, the helicopter moves away to minimize disturbance and the ground team is guided to the site to provide support. During immobilization, the rhino’s breathing, blood oxygenation, pulse and temperature are closely monitored. Any required procedures – ear-notching, de-horning, radio-transmitter implantation in the horn, or snare removal – are performed as quickly as possible. A transport crate is lifted off the truck with a mounted crane and placed immediately in front of the drugged rhino. Once the rhino is securely inside, the crate it is loaded onto the truck for transport.
All rhino management operations are planned annually by the Zimbabwean National Rhino Coordination Committee to ensure that they are appropriately supportive of the National Rhino Strategy. Operations in private land areas are facilitated by the conservancies and are monitored was by personnel from the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
Rescue, Rehabilitation and Reintroduction
The Lowveld Rhino Trust also rescues and hand-rears orphaned rhino calves whose mothers have been lost to poachers. Nursing calves are treated for any injuries and bottle-fed skimmed milk with nutritional supplements, a process that often takes long hours of patient training. They are kept in secure bomas (pens) overnight and let out into fenced paddocks during the day, and every attempt is made to socialize them with others closest to their own age. The intention is not to create a permanent sanctuary for these orphans, but to treat, rehabilitate and weaned them so they can be returned to the wild.
The stories of two calves, Bebrave and Long Playing, illustrate the importance of this program. In August 2011, when the male calf Bebrave was about a year old, his mother and older sister were killed by poachers. Long Playing, a female calf, was barely seven months old when her mother was killed in 2012. Both orphans were captured for hand-raising. Bebrave was already well settled in his captive home, seemingly content with a huge tractor tire and an orphan eland for company when another member of his own species arrived, when Long Playing arrived. Both the tire and eland were quickly abandoned when the gate to his new companion’s pen was opened. At half Bebrave’s size, Long Playing was somewhat less enthusiastic about having a new playmate and immediately began to chase him. However, the two quickly came to terms and have been inseparable ever since.
One day in 2013, straight after their morning bottles of milk, both young rhinos were tranquilized. Once the drugs took effect, both rhinos’ ears were notched for future identification, blood was drawn for routine health checks, and the older Bebrave was fitted with a radio transmitter to aid in post-release monitoring. The commotion attracted the attention of the hand-raised eland, Sparky, who had been Bebrave’s companion before Long Playing arrived. Watching over the fence, Sparky quite unaware that he was next in line, as all three hand-raised animals were to be released together. The drive to the release area took nearly two hours. A quiet watering hole was chosen so that the two young rhinos could establish new home ranges without disruption. The release went smoothly, the rhinos joining up with each other quickly before quietly walking off down the road - a hugely rewarding sight after a year-and-a-half of daily care.
Celebrating 100 Black Rhino Calves
In 2012, the Lowveld Rhino Trust moved 15 black rhinos from areas of high poaching pressure to more secure habitats. Monitoring units also tallied 38 rhino births, including the 100th black rhino born in the Bubye Valley Conservancy. With rhino poaching in South Africa at an all-time high, this milestone seems all that more significant. The first black rhinos were introduced to the Bubye Valley Conservancy in 2002. Over the last three to four years, this population has been growing at an annual rate of between five and 10%, which bodes well for the species’ future in Zimbabwe. Based on the extent of available black rhino habitat in this region, the Lowveld Rhino Trust team estimates that it may take only five years for the next 100 calves to be born.
Conservation initiatives undertaken in partnership by the International Rhino Foundation and the Lowveld Rhino Trust receive generous support from a number of institutions and individuals, including the Perry R. Bass II Foundation, the Bland Family Foundation, Blank Park Zoo, Buffalo Zoo, Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, Houston Zoo, JDD Holdings LLC, Robert P. Jornayvaz III (Intrepid Production Inc.), Paul Tudor Jones, Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium, Mesker Park Zoo, Milwaukee County Zoo, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Orvis, Gladys Porter Zoo Docents, Reid Park Zoo, Lee Richardson Zoo, Rolling Hills Wildlife Center, Saint Louis Zoo AAZK Chapter, San Francisco Zoological Society, SeaWorld-Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, Sedgwick County Zoo, Tanganyika Wildlife Park, Valley Zoological Society, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Walter Family Foundation, the Warner Family Foundation, Zoo Lille, Zoo Miami, and Zoo New England.