Nine critically endangered rhino are relocated from South Africa to Tanzania

Fueled by a lucrative illegal trade in wildlife products, East Africa has experienced an unparalleled poaching crisis, decimating rhino numbers. From an estimated 10,000 animals in 1970, the Tanzanian black rhino population has decreased by 99% and today there are estimated to be only 100 rhino surviving in all of Tanzania. While the Serengeti ecosystem has become the stronghold for Tanzania’s beleaguered rhino population, it is a pale shadow of its former glory when an estimated 700 rhino resided in the Serengeti National Park in 1980. The poaching pandemic has resulted in the IUCN placing the last remaining eastern black rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli) on its red list and classifying them as critically endangered.

During the rhino poaching crisis of the 1970’s and 1980’s, black rhino from various parts of East Africa were translocated to safe havens in international zoos and ex-situ breeding sanctuaries. This was done in an effort to safeguard the species with the hope of eventually returning these individuals, or their offspring, back to East Africa once the poaching situation had been brought under control. While rhino poaching still threatens the existence of this species some forty years later, there is a strong desire and conservation need to re-establish black rhino populations in well protected areas where they formerly roamed and thrived.

Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority (TAWA), in partnership with the Grumeti Fund, manages 350,000 acres in the western Serengeti. This area forms a buffer zone to the Serengeti National Park and as such plays a critical role in the protection of the core areas of the Serengeti ecosystem. Together, TAWA and the Grumeti Fund have achieved considerable success in curbing poaching since our partnership began in 2003. This has led to dramatic increases in wildlife numbers within the protected area with, the Ikorongo-Grumeti concession area experiencing a more than fourfold increase in the elephant population and tenfold increase in buffalo numbers.

With a strong anti-poaching presence in place and plenty of ideally-suited rhino habitat, TAWA and the Grumeti Fund, under the leadership of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, are poised to grow and meaningfully contribute to rhino conservation in Tanzania by establishing a new satellite population of free-ranging eastern black rhino within the greater Serengeti ecosystem. Strong partnerships are paramount to the re-establishment of critically endangered species. Stephen Cunliffe, Executive Director of the Grumeti Fund, elaborates: “The traction and success of the black rhino re-establishment project has been built upon an open-door policy of collaboration where we actively engage in long-term government partnerships, while simultaneously seeking out alliances with like-minded conservation organizations and philanthropists”.

On September 10th, the Tanzanian government welcomed a founder population of nine eastern black rhino from South Africa. This is the largest ever single movement of rhino into Tanzania and will increase the national population of this critically endangered species by approximately 10%. The animals, who were carefully selected by age and genetic composition, are directly related to the rhino removed from East Africa in the 1970’s and will be of extreme value to the genetic diversity of the existing Serengeti rhino population.

The rhino were transported from Thaba Tholo Game Farm in South Africa by truck to Johannesburg International Airport. From there they boarded to a chartered 747 cargo plane, alongside four wildlife veterinarians and a rhino behavior specialist to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. From Kilimanjaro the rhino boarded a C130 flying to the Grumeti concessions and were transferred by truck to their temporary enclosures. They will remain in the boma facility until such time as the team of wildlife veterinarians deem them fit for release into the wider Serengeti ecosystem. As Grant Burden, Head of Special Projects at the Grumeti Fund, notes: “Rhino populations have crashed before in Africa, but they’ve survived, and recovered, because of people who do something about the problem. With the support of the Tanzanian government, we are confident we can do it again in the Serengeti.”

Within the Grumeti concession area there are currently two eastern black rhino (one male and one female) residing in a 276 hectare intensive protection zone. One is nine-year-old bull, Eric, who arrived in September 2018 from San Diego Safari Park. Over the past year he has undergone a process of naturalization and rewilding in an effort to ensure that he is fully adapted and fit for release into the wider Serengeti ecosystem towards the end of 2019. The female, Laikipia, is also a captive-bred rhino who came to Tanzania from Port Lympne Reserve in the U.K. in 2007.

Once acclimatized to their new surroundings, the rhino are expected to be released into the greater Serengeti ecosystem before the end of the year. Rhino conservation is not easy nor cheap. The Grumeti Fund’s black rhino re-establishment project has involved years-worth of planning and millions of dollars. But, as the Fund’s Executive Director concludes: “We strongly believe that you cannot put a price on the survival of a species, so the Grumeti Fund will continue to fundraise, invest and work tirelessly with our partners to see black rhino safe and thriving in the Serengeti ecosystem once more”.

Source: Grumeti Fund