In the 1970s and 1980s, Tanzania
experienced an unparalleled poaching crisis that saw their entire rhinoceros
population plummet by 99%.
The eastern black rhinoceros (Diceros
bicornis michaeli), once common throughout East Africa, is distinguishable
from black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), common in southern Africa, by
having longer, leaner, and more curved horns and
grooved skin. As one of the rarest large mammals on the planet,
the eastern black rhinoceros is now described on the IUCN RedList as ‘Critically
Endangered’. Only a few hundred individuals throughout the entire East African
region now remain.
Fortunately, during the height of
the poaching crisis and in an effort to safeguard the species from extinction, some
rhino were translocated to safe havens outside Tanzania. A few went to zoos and
breeding sanctuaries in Europe and the United States while a larger
group of around sixty were sent to Addo
Elephant Park in South Africa.
Back then, the
hope was to preserve their genetic diversity by not inter-breeding them with
the southern species. The idea was that someday, once the poaching
situation had been brought under control, these rhinos would eventually be
returned to Tanzania.
More than forty years later, that
day finally arrived.
In the early hours of a rainy
Tuesday 10th September, Tanzania welcomed back nine eastern black
rhino offspring from the sixty that were originally sent to South Africa. All
nine individuals were chosen on the basis of their genetic robustness, having
over a 95% of their subspecies’ hereditary composition.
The ambitious million-dollar operation
saw the rhino transported in specifically custom-built crates from South Africa
to Kilimanjaro on an air-conditioned 747 cargo plane. The breeding nucleus comprised
of two bull calves and their mothers, three other adult cows and two large
bulls. They were accompanied by a team of highly experienced veterinarians,
wildlife translocators and a rhino behaviour specialist who constantly monitored
their condition and well-being during the 36-hour journey.
On arrival at Kilimanjaro
International Airport, the rhinos were officially welcomed by Tanzania’s
Minister of Environment, January Makamba. In a short ceremony, the minister
thanked South Africa for its care of the rhino and welcomed the return of the
progeny – a group that will effectively boost Tanzania’s eastern black rhino
population by a full 10%.
Kilimanjaro, the rhinos were reloaded into a smaller C130
Hercules cargo plane for the hour-long flight to a dusty airstrip in the far western
Serengeti. They were flown there in two batches before being transferred by
trucks to their temporary enclosures on the banks of the Grumeti River. Here, for
the next two months, the rhino will be under constant supervision and
acclimatized until their eventual release into the wider ecosystem.
Forging a long-term public-private-community partnership
The protracted relocation and rehabilitation project is
the brainchild of the Tanzanian Wildlife Management Authority (TAWA) in
partnership with the Grumeti Fund, which manages the area and plays a crucial
role in the protection of the core areas of the western Serengeti.
“The success of
the rhino re-establishment project,” explains Stephen Cunliffe, Executive
Director of the Grumeti Fund, “has been built upon a policy of collaboration and
a shared common vision between government and private stakeholders. The area has long been considered an ideal
natural habitat for black rhinos and decades of planning have gone into
preparing the rhinos for re-introduction back into this ecosystem.”
Part of the collaboration meant that a strong
anti-poaching presence in the area had to first be established. Cunliffe says that
TAWA together with the Grumeti Fund anti-poaching units have “achieved
considerable success in curbing poaching that ultimately has led to dramatic
increases in other wildlife population numbers.”
Thanks to these successful anti-poaching measures, the Grumeti,
already a pivotal loacale in the annual wildebeest migration, has experienced a
more than fourfold increase in elephant populations and tenfold increase in
buffalo numbers. Lions too have made a significant comeback placing the Grumeti
as one of the finest destinations in Africa to view and photograph wildlife.
Wesley Gold, head of the anti-poaching unit in the
Serengeti, said that since 2003 Grumeti has enjoyed very low incidences of
poaching. “We definitely have a handle on the situation here,” he said, “these
rhinos are in the safest hands possible.” From the moment they touched down,
the rhinos have been provided with round-the-clock protection by heavily armed rangers.
It is little wonder then that luxury safari companies
like Singita have taken advantage of the teeming wildlife
and the protected pristine landscape. Many of their guests have been eager to
contribute to Grumeti Fund’s process that not only has seen the establishment
of projects such as rhino repopulation but also to form close working relationships
with nearby communities in their capacity building and conservation
development. The return of the rhinos is designed to further enhance the tourism
potential as well as community development.
“It is extremely important for us that these rhinos have
come back,” says Makuru Rugatiri, who grew up in a village on the boundary of
the protected area and who has been working as a Section Manager at the Grumeti
Fund for the past fifteen years. “Many people here have grown up without ever
seeing a rhino. Rhinos were once part of who we were as Tanzanians. Now, thanks
to their return, we can once again be proud of our natural heritage".
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