Historical Decline and Local Extinction: 1890-2000
Both Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis minor) and White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) were historically found in Botswana. While the black rhino occurred at lower densities, the white rhino was more widespread and occurred across northern Botswana (Joubert, 1996). In the ‘colonial period’, especially the late 19th and early 20th centuries, unrestricted trophy hunting led to the near-extinction of the white rhino, and its probable extinction in Botswana by the 1890’s (Emslie & Brooks, 1999).
Following the independence of Botswana in 1966, white rhino seen in Botswana were limited to occasional individuals originating in Hwange National Park in the then Rhodesia and wandering across the border (Smithers, 1968). Black rhino numbers were estimated at less than 20 individuals in the Chobe National Park and Selinda area with occasional immigrants from Hwange (Smithers, 1968). An ambitious reintroduction project was then begun and between 1967 and 1981 a total of 94 white rhinos were introduced from South Africa in a joint project between the Botswana Government and the Natal Parks Board (Emslie & Brooks, 1999). All of these rhino were ‘free released’ and were not kept in bomas prior to release. The majority was released into the Chobe National Park in north eastern Botswana, with some also being released into the Moremi Game Reserve which encompasses the western half of the Okavango Delta (Myers et al, 2004).
By 1984 the white rhino population had reached 190, but in 1992 numbers had crashed as a result of poaching and only 27 animals were thought to survive (Emslie & Brooks, 1999). Black rhino numbers were even lower and had experienced a reduction from 30 in 1980 to only 5 in 1992 (Emslie & Brooks, 1999). The Botswana Defence Force was given a tough mandate to end commercial poaching, and the remaining white rhinos were captured and trans-located to small, secure sanctuaries elsewhere in Botswana (Mokolodi Nature Reserve, near Gaborone, and the Khama II Rhino Sanctuary, near Serowe) (Emslie & Brooks, 1999).
The effective protection of these trans-located rhinos, combined with further small scale reintroductions from South Africa with significant assistance from South African National Parks, ensured that their numbers increased and in 1999 the management plan submitted by safari company Wilderness Safaris in the tender process for the Mombo concession included a formal proposal to undertake the reintroduction of rhinos into the area. The immediate aim of the rhino reintroduction project was to return the white rhino to the Okavango Delta. The overall objective was to re-establish breeding herds of both white and black rhinos in the wild in the Okavango Delta, and in time, in other locations across northern Botswana. Ultimately the goal, in keeping with Botswana’s National Rhino Management Strategy, was to make Botswana a significant range state for both species. Benefits from the reintroduction would include increased tourism potential as well as the inclusion of two important mega herbivores in a consequently more complete ecosystem.
In 1994 Chief’s Island in the Moremi Game Reserve had been identified by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) as an ideal release site for any potential rhino reintroduction. Wilderness Safaris’ proposal to use Mombo, at the northern tip of Chief’s Island, as the release site was therefore regarded favorably by the DWNP and Botswana government as it represented good black and white rhino habitat, had a known history of rhino in the area and was a remote location in the heart of the Okavango Delta beyond the reach of poachers. Habitat studies conducted by Dr Raoul du Toit had also identified that Chiefs Island has sufficient habitat for both species.
By the end of 2001, the first white rhinos had been trans-located to Mombo. Between 2001 and 2005 a total of 28 white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) and 4 black rhino (Diceros bicornis minor) had been trans-located via the holding pens at Mombo. Since being released in the vicinity of Mombo Camp, the animals have ranged widely after release and have subsequently settled in quite widely distributed areas with, in the case of the white rhino, core populations established in several areas (Galpine, 2006a; 2006b).
Since 2003 black rhino numbers remained static with the area too large for as regular as required contact between the individuals of the small founder population. The white rhino population however grew at an exceptional rate and by the end of 2008 (despite some mortalities of adults and calves) had almost doubled to a population of 40 animals.
The natural dispersal of sub-adult rhinos has resulted in several small populations being established in areas away from the core release area in the Moremi Game Reserve. One of these is in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park which is an ideal habitat for white rhinos given that the main habitat of open grasslands is well represented in that park. Excellent co-operation with a the Desert and Delta Safari company who operate one of their camps in that area, and a very high level of security provided by Botswana Government Special anti-poaching forces ensure the continued increase in that sub-population.
Monitoring for management
To inform managers of rhinoceros populations, it is vital that accurate monitoring for security and biological management is carried out continuously and methodically throughout the known range of the animals. With the assistance of the Botswana Defence Force, the Botswana Anti-Poaching Units and the valuable support of safari operating companies Desert and Delta Safaris and Wilderness Safaris, this information is constantly being gathered using ground patrols and electronic monitoring via the use of imbedded transmitters and location devices. Both the patrols and the electronic equipment are expensive to maintain, but the information obtained is important to establish the biological performance of the rhinos and to assist security agencies in protecting them, and the support of donors is gratefully acknowledged.
The focus shifts to Black Rhino: 2009-2011
To date the white rhino population has produced close to 35 calves and now numbers over 60 animals, the reintroduction being considered an unqualified success with this population now well established and on the way to ensuring that Botswana becomes a significant range state for this vulnerable species. Daily monitoring and anti-poaching efforts have continued to be both diligent as well as disciplined with continuing co-operation between Wilderness Safaris and Botswana’s DWNP along with elements of the Botswana Defense Force and the Botswana Anti Poaching Unit. These efforts are now recognized as amongst the most accurate and effective in the region leading to Botswana being regarded as an extremely safe destination for both species of rhino.
By contrast the 4 black rhino, as a much smaller founder population, produced this first calf in early 2009, bringing the total to 5 animals. This first calf has been named Boipuso – meaning ‘Independence’ as he was discovered during Independence week (see image below of Boipuso sleeping next to his mother).
With the successful establishment of a white rhino breeding herd and then the above-mentioned black rhino birth, the focus of the Botswana Rhino Reintroduction Project shifted to Botswana’s black rhino population. It became clear that in order to maximize the breeding potential of these 4 adult animals and ensure that Botswana does indeed once again become a significant range state for the species and a contributor to the survival of black rhino in Africa, it is imperative that more black rhino are released in the area. (It is well established by rhino biologists that a viable breeding population of any species of rhino must consist of at least 20 animals).
Accordingly we have spent the last 3 years seeking a suitable founder population of black rhino to relocate to the Okavango. A considerable amount of effort has also been expended in terms of securing sufficient funds to achieve this end.
It is well known that both species of rhino, along with several other species of African animals including elephant for ivory, cats for bones and other parts and many species of birds and reptiles are targeted by local and international poaching syndicates. This activity is ongoing, and has actually increased in recent times in both South Africa and Zimbabwe, with over 600 rhinos being poached in South Africa alone in 2012. Because of this, the awareness of the potential for wildlife crime in Botswana has prompted a major and high level reaction to the protection of these valuable resources.
Orders from the very top have resulted in an increase in intelligence manpower on the ground along with higher levels of armed anti-poaching forces. Combined with the coverage provided by the private sector monitoring officers and anti-poaching units, we feel that we have sufficient personnel in place at this time, to protect these animals. As the numbers of rhino increase, so the forces will be advanced towards greater protection. Without entering into too much detail, the current efforts towards protecting our rhino have been highly improved and we are confident that, although not without risk, that the rhino are sufficiently protected at this time.
Thank you and onwards
Rhino Project Director