April 8, 2020

Black Rhino Translocation to Malawi

This Black Rhino translocation operation saw 17 specially chosen, genetically diverse individuals moved from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to Malawi, marking the first cross-border translocation of its kind.

Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) numbers have plummeted in the last few decades of the 20th century, predominantly due to poaching and habitat loss. The IUCN Red List states the Black Rhinoceros as Critically Endangered (CR) and, if this problem were to be ignored, they would be at risk of being “extinct in the wild (EW)”, and after that “Extinct (EX)".

Black Rhino Relocation Malawi 3

In 2003, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and WWF initiated the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP), a project aimed at sourcing and securing new areas on which to re-establish populations of Black Rhino. Since 2003, the BRREP has successfully moved 218 Black Rhino to new homes, effectively establishing 13 new populations. The programme has seen the birth of more than 100 calves. A momentous conservation operation that is working!

The Black Rhino Range Expansion Project

Wildlife ACT has assisted with the monitoring of Black Rhino on all BRREP sites since the first population was established in 2004. In November 2019, we assisted with the BRREP’s 13th translocation. This operation saw 17 specially chosen, genetically diverse individuals, moved from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to Malawi, the first cross-border translocation of its kind.

Black Rhino Relocation Malawi 4

After months of preparation, years for some, the journey began. With such precious cargo, it was a long journey for the ground crew. Even though all measures were taken to minimise stress and ensure their safety, the magnitude of such a Rhino translocation meant the team was under pressure. This team comprised of highly experienced vets, game capture staff and management from BRREP WWF SA, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Conservation Solutions, African Parks, Malawi Department of Parks and Wildlife & Wildlife ACT.

Black Rhino Translocation to Malawi

On the 11th of November 2019, after having been quarantined in large holding bomas for 6 weeks, the Rhino were loaded onto trucks, driven to King Shaka Airport and loaded into a Boeing 747. With wind and rain delaying loading, pressure mounted. At midnight, after flying through an electrical storm, the plane landed safely at Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe. The relief was palpable. We offloaded and fed each Rhino before reloading them onto trucks for the next leg. Our mammoth convoy didn’t escape notice or wonder by the local Malawians.

Black Rhino Relocation Malawi 2

Ten hours after the plane had landed, we drove through the reserve gates and were welcomed by an incredibly well-organised crew, which included African Parks’ reserve management and staff, anti-poaching units, species monitors and soldiers. Needless to say, they run a tight ship. After a concise briefing, we moved into the bush for the final stint. The temperature and humidity was rapidly rising making it crucial to get the Rhino out of their loading crates as quickly as possible. On the 12th of November 2019, after a 36-hour long trip by land and air, all 17 Black Rhino were successfully released into their new home.

Black Rhino Release in Lilongwe, Malawi

Releasing that last Black Rhino was an incredible moment, filled with excitement, relief and a good dose of fatigue. For the next two weeks we assisted with the Black Rhino monitor training and spent hours each day walking in the Malawian bush with the African Parks rangers. Our aim was to positively identify each individual, monitor their condition, movements and browse preference.

The Malawian Team that I worked with during this Black Rhino Translocation, are disciplined soldiers, exceptional trackers, eager for knowledge, passionate about their job, their reserve and their new Black Rhino. They are also some of the friendliest human beings I have had the privilege of working with. Air support allowed for secondary monitoring from above. VHF and LoRa tracking systems, multiple ground teams and aerial support allows for intense monitoring and advanced security, a force to be reckoned with.

Black Rhino Relocation Malawi

Conservation Collaboration at its Best

The state of the Earth’s endangered species and dwindling wild places is often bleak. But being a part of a collaboration of this scale, seeing so many different organisations and individuals coming together to protect an endangered species, is inspiring. There is hope. 

"No effort was too great, no hardship too unbearable to make the captures and translocation work. There were setbacks, people got tired, monitoring proved challenging initially, but over and above it all hangs a sense of satisfaction at having accomplished our mission. It’s an affirmation that what we are doing for long term Black Rhino conservation is immensely worthwhile.”

Dr Jacques Flamand, the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project leader.

- Text & Video by Pippa Orpen