The numbers game gains momentum

Kruger National Park.
Kruger National Park.

This August cabinet announced the tiers of its integrated strategic interventions planned for the management of our country’s rhino. It’s not a simple plan, and promises no quick fix to the ongoing poaching scourge. Instead, it proposes a mix of long-term and short-term interventions.

These include compulsory actions such as proactive poaching tactics; international and national collaboration and cooperation and long-term sustainability measures, which include the creation of economic alternatives for communities and the increase in rhino numbers. Included is the biological management of rhino – highlighted as a key focus.

It’s not the first time that conservationists have applied the latter. South Africa’s dwindling rhino population has been saved once before, in the 1960s, and lessons learnt are being applied today. Around that time, 351 white rhino were released into southern Kruger from the Hluhluwe-uMfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. A key decision was supplying a large enough area for them to roam in says SANParks large-mammal ecologist, Dr Sam Ferreira. This allowed them to breed like, well, rhino, he says.

By 1990 numbers grew to 1 000 and by 2000 the population was 2 000 strong. In 2010, numbers reached between 8 700 and
12 200. “If you can increase the population beyond a certain critical point, the growth in rhino numbers is explosive,” he explains.

The hope is now that “a matching biological-management approach to the existing ranger anti-poaching efforts will give the rhino a chance of survival in the face of this aggressive onslaught, until we have sorted out the poaching itself”.

In order to implement this, the animals will be strategically removed from the Kruger National Park (KNP), home to the bulk of the country’s rhino. In some places in this park, natural regulation of the population growth has kicked in, says Ferreira, and they are seeing decreasing birth rates and increasing natural mortalities. In order to stimulate population growth again, SANParks management is now removing animals out of high-density areas. They will also remove rhino from areas where poaching risks are high.

But, there is more impetus behind the translocation of rhino to places outside Kruger. The rhino will be taken to smaller reserves where they can be better protected. “It will allow us to eschew the sex ratio and age structure, practising ‘conservation husbandry’ in order to grow numbers,” Ferreira explains. SANParks have a number of options of places to create strongholds outside the KNP for rhino. These include other protected areas; with communities that might benefit through the creation of alternative economies; private individuals and even other countries.

According to Ferreira, the hope is that the combination of strategic rhino removals and the creation of strongholds outside Kruger will offset at least half of the damage done by poaching in the short- to medium term, if the trends continue as they currently do.

Implementation of these plans is a priority. According to the 2013 census, between 8 400 and 9 600 white rhino are presently left in Kruger. As poaching, natural deaths and the translocation of these animals from the park now match that of rhino births, it means that the once budding population has now stabilised.



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