The new black rhino conservation strategy is an ambitious plan that will strengthen Namibia’s role as the world’s caretaker of the unique black rhino subspecies in south-western Africa.
Pierre du Preez, the national rhino co-ordinator, calls it a dream that will be realised if the current success in the expansion of the black rhino population is kept up. “We built this population up from scratch,” he says. “If we continue, the dream will definitely become a reality.”
The target is to increase the national population to at least 2 000 individuals within the next 30 years. However, to achieve this increase, more land is needed and not only in Namibia. Eventually rhino populations will be expanded to former range areas in South Africa and Angola.
Du Preez says parks extending over national borders, like the planned Ai-Ais Huns Richtersfeld Transfrontier Park and the Skeleton Coast Iona Trans-frontier Park, will be important to realise the vision incorporated in the new strategy to increase the black rhino populations. The objective is that by 2030 the subspecies will be “re-established in viable, healthy breeding populations throughout its former range, and will be utilised sustainably through controlled low-impact tourism”.
The strategy – revised last year in recognition of Namibia’s important role in the conservation of black rhino – will now also, for the first time, promote the expansion of the rhino population throughout the country. Rudi Loutit, manager of the rhino custodianship scheme, says the important job now is to find more space, as areas where black rhino populations are currently found, are nearing their carrying capacity.
Other parks, more private land and areas in communal land will be considered for the expansion of the population. At present black rhino occur under the custodianship scheme in the Etosha National Park, Waterberg Plateau Park and Hardap Game Reserve; in the Kunene Region as a free-ranging population; and on 11 private farms.
Namibia holds almost a third of all Africa’s remaining black rhino, and is the stronghold of the south-western desert-adapted subspecies (Diceros bicornis bicornis), of which virtually all occur in the country. More than 95% of the subspecies – almost 900 animals – occur in Namibia.
The strategy will remain in effect for five years before being revised. By then the black rhino population should number 900. It is envisaged that another five years along the line the country will have more than 1 100 rhino. The objective is to continue a national population increase of 5% annually. This growth rate has been achieved in the past decade.
According to Loutit, the strategy is much more detailed than the previous one and will enable the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) to measure progress. “It talks about specific places and issues and states the objectives much more clearly,” he says. “It goes right down to classifying the sizes of protected, private and communal land that will be needed.”
According to the strategy, the rhino range will be increased to a minimum of 7 800 km2 in parks, 23 755 km2 in communal land and 3 600 km2 on private land. Parks such as the Namib-Naukluft, Khaudum and Ai-Ais are considered.
In communal areas, conservancies to conserve rhinos could apply. The first rhino sanctuary and communal rhino custodianship scheme has been approved for the Hobatere communal state land in the Kunene Region (27 500 ha).
Besides the expansion of range, five more objectives have been identified to help achieve the aim of the strategy. They are:
The success of black rhino conservation has so far been based on an innovative conservation and management programme. Loutit says this included the initial efforts in the 1970s to sustain the black rhino population in the Etosha National Park, the introduction of the custodianship scheme on private land and the efforts to conserve the free-ranging population in the Kunene Region.
Future success will depend on Namibia’s ability to maintain adequate standards of protection, management and monitoring, while sustainable utilisation will be investigated. He says the biggest threat to black rhino in future will be security, especially in parks.
Namibia has had virtually no incident of black rhino poaching in the past decade since the stabilisation of numbers following huge declines due to poaching in the 1970s. “We have a good track record so far, but we will have to make sure it stays this way.”
One way of doing it, is to ensure that there is sufficient funding to keep parks operational. “If budgets are reduced, we will see an adverse effect.”
Monitoring Etosha’s black rhino
The Etosha National Park has the largest black rhino population in a single conservation area in the world. With an estimated population of over 600, 70% of the black rhino subspecies Diceros bicornis bicornis occur in the park.
Taking censuses and monitoring Etosha’s large population effectively is a major challenge. The rhino are monitored primarily during the dry season at permanent water points, where they drink regularly at night. The method is to observe as many rhino as possible at each water point during the full-moon periods. During these full-moon counts rhino are photographed for individual identification.
There are currently more than 2000 photographs of rhino in a database. Photos are linked to the relevant individual rhino and particular water-point counts. This allows for the viewing of all photos of a particular rhino taken during a particular water-point count. At least 64 water points are covered each year during the full-moon periods from July to September. Ear notching of clean rhino continues. For example, some rhino were fitted with transmitters and tracked to provide information on their movement patterns.
The true numbers of rhino in Etosha have not been established before. Officials are now almost sure that the numbers were consistently underestimated. Current numbers show the park is nearing its carrying capacity.
According to Rudi Loutit, custodianship rhino manager of the Ministry, populations are ideally managed when they comprise between 50% and 75% of the carrying capacity of the area they frequent.
Maintenance of high-growth rates can be achieved by keeping population densities at or below the preferred management densities.
Permit control applies to virtually every aspect of rhino conservation and management. Contravention of the regulations can be punished by a fine of up to N$200 000 or 20 years’ imprisonment.
Conserving rhino on private land
Eleven commercial farms are currently involved in the rhino custodianship programme that was introduced in 1993. Another 20 farms will be made part of the programme over the next five years.
The use of private land to breed more rhino outside protected areas is a key rhino conservation activity for the country. Commercial farmers are managing an increasing proportion of Namibia’s black rhino population under custodianship agreements with Government.
According to Loutit, the custodianship scheme was started with the realisation that black rhino numbers in parks will not increase significantly when numbers exceed the ideal carrying capacity. “It is a space thing. We were running out of space in parks and had no alternative other than to move rhinos out to private lands,” he explains.
An annual increase of 7% in numbers had been achieved on private farms. In comparison the targeted national increase is 5%, indicating the success achieved by breeding black rhino on private land. The farms now hold the third biggest populations in the country.
Under the custodianship scheme, the rhino and their offspring remain government property. Loutit says that most farmers became involved in the scheme solely to support conservation, as they receive zero benefits. Loutit is currently in the process of inspecting 14 new farmers who have applied to be custodians. Two applications are from conservancies.
Custodians are selected by a panel according to a comprehensive assessment system. Issues such as carrying capacity, habitat (topography, drought potential and the situation of the veld), adjoining land use, water and distribution, the management experience of the farmer and his financial record, the success of other specially protected species on the land, the level of disturbance and disease are investigated.
No poaching has taken place on the farms since the custodianship scheme was introduced. Loutit says this is due to the strict selection of custodians.
It is the responsibility of the custodian to ensure that the rhino are cared for properly at all times. The farmer is also responsible for monitoring and has to submit regular reports to the Ministry.
A farm that is approved must be able to support a minimum population of ten rhino and have a minimum size of 10 000 ha. In future farms that can accommodate a larger black rhino population will be favoured, as this will be cheaper in the long term for management and the genetic health of the population. A revised framework for private custodianship aimed at promoting the expansion of current areas to enable larger rhino populations will be developed. Neighbouring land holdings will be encouraged to form private conservancies where rhinos can form the focus of their wildlife conservation efforts.
Based on the specifications of the new black rhino conservation strategy that the range of rhinos should be expanded to historical range areas, the programme will be extended to farmland throughout the country and especially to the south of Namibia. This diversified stakeholding in rhino conservation in Namibia offers several advantages and benefits for the future sustainability of rhino management, but also considerable challenges.
This article appeared in the 2002 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.