Signs of recovery for Zimbabwe’s rhinos and plans for major reintroduction into Gonarezhou National Park
20 black rhinos to be reintroduced into Gonarezhou National Park
September 2013. 2013 has been a rather good year so far, as far as Zimbabwe’s rhinos are concerned. Nine animals are believed to have been poached, but there were 44 births (24 black and 20 white rhino) in the Lowveld alone. So overall there is growth in the Zimbabwean rhino population this year with poaching considerably reduced from previous years.
This means, there are now 620 rhinos in Zimbabwe (394 black and 226 white). White rhino have been on a steady rise but the black rhino population had been through a period of decline from mid 2007 through to mid 2009 due to heavy poaching. Translocations to remove rhinos from very vulnerable areas and on-going anti-poaching efforts have created an environment where steady population growth has been achieved over the last four years.
As encouraging and positive as this may sound, the situation is far from normal. Tremendous efforts are required to secure the future for the black Rhino in Zimbabwe and we think strategic rhino re-introductions may be necessary to continue establishing viable wild rhino populations in their natural habitat.
Gonarezhou National Park
Gonarezhou National Park (GNP) is the second largest protected area in Zimbabwe after Hwange National Park, covering an area of 5,053 km2 of the southeast lowveld, sharing an international boundary with Mozambique. GNP, which has been part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) since 2002, lies within the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA). GNP contains many animals of conservation significance, some which are considered rare in Zimbabwe; e.g. pangolin, bat-eared fox, African wild dog, roan antelope and nyala, among the larger mammals.
Rhino became extinct twice!
GNP is probably one of the few protected areas where black rhino went locally extinct twice – first, sometime during the late 1930′s or 1940′s due to sport hunting, poaching and conflict with an expanding agriculture sector and human population. A second extinction occurred when a population of 77 founder rhinos, reintroduced in 1969-71, went locally extinct in 1994 after reaching a population peak in excess of 100 animals. This second extinction was mainly due to poaching and the 1991/92 drought.
Reintroducing black rhinos
Primary objective is to re-introduce founder populations of black (and possibly white rhino) which will be the start of the re-establishment of a free ranging rhino population in the Gonarezhou National Park. The IUCN guidelines demand that a founder population of at least 20 animals is required. As the GNP is a new reintroduction area with relatively high risks involved, it is suggested the first phase be not more than 20 black rhinos.
After releasing the animals from their bomas they would still be secured by internal fences in order to encourage them to establish their ranges in safe areas, as well as being able to focus security efforts. These fences will be low and of such a nature that they do not inhibit the movements of other animals, including elephants, but will be directly targeted at keeping the rhino inside a safe zone. This kind of fence has been successfully used in North Luangwa, Zambia, to contain relocated rhino. The fence will also create an environment where a ‘no tolerance’ zone for law enforcement effort can be applied. We call this an IPZ, an Intensive Protection Zone.
All reintroduced rhinos will need to be implanted with Very High Frequency (VHF) transmitters so they can be monitored effectively and efficiently, but it is important that the monitoring system is not solely based on the radio transmitters. The transmitters, just like the internal fences, will be a temporary measure only and the long term aim is for a monitoring system based on tracking. The initial monitoring will be done from the air until the animals are settled into their new environment and from then on the tracking will be largely based on ground tracking with only sporadic air tracking. Good monitors with excellent tracking skills will have to be trained to ensure an acceptable level of monitoring expertise in GNP is in place. The transmitters will assist with recovery when an animal breaks out of the fence at the early stages of the project.
600 kilometre2 boma!
The estimated size of the proposed rhino Intensive Protection Zone is approximately 600 km2. The ideal time for a translocation will be in the cooler months of the year (June-August) for the capture and transport of the animals. However, it may be best to release the rhinos somewhat later in the year (October/November) so that they do not experience a prolonged dry season period before the wet season browse flush, while they are still settling into the area.
The proposed GNP IPZ faces 3 significant challenges:
number of rangers
management of the rangers
standard of rangers.
Extra rangers required
The Chipinda Pools sector in the north of GNP covers about 3000 km2 and Mabalauta in the south covers approximately 2000km2. There are currently only 33 rangers available for patrols at Chipinda Pools and 25 rangers for patrols in Mabalauta. However, we will at least need 55 and 45 rangers respectively for Chipinda Pools and Mabalauta. Once this is achieved a total of 25 additional rangers for the IPZ will be adequate to secure the rhinos if all the rangers (including Chipinda Pools and Mabalauta) are of the required standard and managed effectively. It is very important that all the rangers have the same goals and objectives and that is to secure the Gonarezhou National Park and with that a free ranging rhino and elephant population. We need professional rangers who are well trained and motivated. Therefore a careful selection of rangers on Gonarezhou needs to take place well before the reintroduction of the first rhinos.
We know our plans are ambitious and demand a lot of hard work and financial means, but we are convinced it will be worth it. We want to make sure that there is a future for rhinos in Zimbabwe. They should live where they belong, which of course includes Gonarezhou National Park.