By Mark Jago, Veterinarian: MET Game Capture Unit
Namibia’s highly successful black-rhino conservation programme has been at the forefront of the effort aimed at bringing Diceros bicornis bicornis back from the brink of extinction.
Today Namibia’s Ministry of Environment of Tourism is proud to say that, with the help of the private sector and non-government organisations, it has halted the catastrophic decline the population experienced in the nineteen seventies, eighties and nineties, and that the road to recovery, though still long and not without pitfalls, is well underway.
Aimed at creating micro-satellite populations throughout the country, the black-rhino custodianship programme run by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) has continued to grow from strength to strength. There are now over 260 black rhinos in the hands of 28 custodians, which include commercial farm owners and communal conservancies. Indeed, in 2007, for the first time, rhinos were returned from the Etosha National Park to areas in Kunene, a region from which they had been removed in the 1970s in an attempt to save the remaining few. Save the Rhino Trust and their partners ope-rating in the Kunene Region have achieved astounding results in ensuring the protection of the ‘desert’ rhino through creating awareness of and adding value to these most ancient of creatures. More recently rhinos have been successfully reintroduced into the Namib-Naukluft Park.
Namibia is now in the privileged position to have sufficient rhinos to assist with the recovery of the species beyond its borders. In 2007 Namibia, South Africa and Zambia embarked on an ambitious three-way agreement to exchange surplus animals in a manner designed to bring conservation benefit to all three countries. Namibia, being home to Diceros bicornis bicornis, moved black rhinos from the Etosha National Park to the Karoo and Addo national parks in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa, a country with few individuals of that subspecies. In return South Africa will, in the near future, move individuals of the Diceros bicornis minor subspecies (of which it has far more) to a protected area of Zambia, a country that has seen this species all but disappear during the latter stages of the last century. The final leg of the equation will be Zambia’s donation of red lechwe, puku, sitatunga and oribi to protected areas within these species’ range in Namibia, where numbers have been reduced drastically in the past. Now that is co-operation on a grand scale!
This bold and complex programme, extending over a three-year period, involves numerous people and organisations from several countries. Co-ordination is required from the most senior level where negotiations and decisions are taken, down through the ranks of technical staff to the hard-working field force of the three nations that will bring the plan to fruition.
In Namibia, the process began in the Etosha National Park where rhinos were captured and then taken to two different sites. Eight rhinos were moved to the Waterberg Plateau Park and housed in purpose-built, first-class rhino bomas. With overhead heating for cold weather, protected roofs against rain and sun and an en-suite bathroom, all that was missing from these de luxe bomas was a satellite TV to give the occupants the ‘experience of a life time’. The other four rhinos were held in somewhat simpler bomas on a private farm just south of Etosha, but nonetheless the care they were given was excellent.
During this period the rhinos underwent a process of acclimatisation in which they became used to the sights and sounds of people and vehicles, thus greatly reducing the stress of transportation. At the same time they learnt to eat lucerne and artificial horse pellets together with hand-cut browse. The area in South Africa to which they were relocated differs considerably in the variety of browse available, so it was essential that they were familiar with supplementary feeding before arriving at their destination. Successful boma training requires tremendous patience and skill, as well as a great deal of hard work. Over the years MET staff have honed these skills, and, working side by side with the private sector and experts from other countries, they ensured the safety and care of the rhinos before the second stage of their transfer began.
The rhinos were transported by road in a massive South African truck that was able to carry six rhinos. Thus began the long trip south. On arrival the exhausted, but well, international travellers were offloaded into other bomas where they were held for a recovery period before being released into their final new home. This process is not without its complications, but the rhinos are doing well.
Working with limited funds, the governments and non-governmental organisations of three countries have successfully moved 12 black rhino from Namibia to South Africa on a long and tiring road journey. Now they plan to use a large aircraft to fly a similar number of rhino from South Africa to Zambia. The third phase will require the negotiation of multiple animal health requirements in a challenging translocation of antelope from Zambia into Namibia.
This translocation is planned for 2009 and will require Namibian teams to work with their counterparts in Zambia to capture, hold in quarantine and transport hundreds of animals over large distances. The disease status of the two countries is complex and likely to require at least two quarantine periods and testing for foot-and-mouth and other diseases. This in turn involves the construction and management of holding facilities, as well as close co-operation between veterinary departments, laboratories, customs officials, feed suppliers and many others.
Namibia will receive 200 puku, 200 red lechwe, 15 sitatunga and 15 oribi, antelope that historically occurred in the wetlands of north-eastern Namibia but are seldom seen there today. This, the first co-operative translocation of antelope from Zambia to Namibia, will ensure that the population is re-established in its former range.
National conservation within the boundaries of our own borders produces a vast array of challenges. As we move into the arena of trans-boundary conservation, the complexities escalate exponentially. But this is the future. Namibia is, and will continue to be, a major player.
This article appeared in the 2008/9 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.