SA rhino deaths a blow to translocation plan
But experts say there's no evidence the pair sent to a national park in Chad were poached
Five months after their 5,000km journey to a new home in central Africa, two of the six black rhinos donated by SA have died in Zakouma National Park in Chad, creating an unexpected setback for plans to re-establish these animals in African nations where poachers have shot them to extinction.
Confirming the deaths of the two critically endangered animals on Sunday, the Department of Environmental Affairs said there was no evidence that the SA rhinos had been poached for their valuable horns.
It is understood that one of the world’s most experienced rhino vets has examined the carcasses and that tissue samples will be collected and sent back to SA for expert analysis.
According to a joint statement by the department, SA National Parks and the African Parks network, the carcasses of the animals – a bull and a cow – were found in separate locations last Monday (October 15).
With only about 5,500 black rhinos left alive in the world, the species is classified as critically endangered on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Dr Richard Emslie, a Pietermaritzburg-based member of the African Rhino Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, said the discovery was “very sad news”, but he cautioned against over-reaction until clear facts emerged.
Emslie said he preferred not to speculate why the animals died, but noted there could be a wide range of reasons, including disease, nutrition problems or ingesting toxins from plants, water or the soil.
Emslie, who visited Zakouma National Park last year, said he saw an abundance of palatable vegetation to sustain black rhinos, a browsing species also known as the hook-lipped rhino.
However, during previous translocations within SA there had been cases of rhinos dying from soil-borne Clostridum perfringens, a bacterial disease that can cause diarrhoea and abdominal cramps within six to 24 hours.
In other cases, rhinos might also be vulnerable to insect-borne diseases such as trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), transmitted by tsetse flies.
“Unfortunately, there is always a risk of mortality among translocated animals. These things happen. But that doesn’t mean that you should not try to restore endangered species to areas from where they have disappeared. In fact, there are many, many examples of successful translocations, and hopefully the Chad translocation will turn out to be a success in the long term.”
Emslie said although only six animals had been translocated from the Marakele and Addo national parks in SA in early May, the long-term plan had been to move about 20 of these animals to Zakouma in the hope of multiplying their numbers to the point that surplus animals could spread out to other secure conservation parks elsewhere in central and west Africa.
Zakouma National Park has been managed by the Johannesburg-based non-government conservation group African Parks since 2010.
Zakouma experienced a devastating period between 2002 and 2010, during which 90% of its elephants were poached for their ivory.
However, African Parks says poaching has been practically eliminated through new law-enforcement measures and community engagement.
African Parks CEO Peter Fearnhead said: “An expert veterinary team is present, and post-mortems are being performed, with tissue samples being collected so that they can be sent to South Africa for testing which might shed some light on the cause of death.
“This is likely to take some time to be conclusive. At this point, possible causes of death are purely speculative. The other four rhinos have all been spotted and are seemingly in good condition, but this does not mean that they will not succumb to whatever it is that affected the two that have died.”
The black rhino was once the most numerous of the world’s rhinoceros species and could have numbered about 850,000. However, relentless hunting of the species and clearances of land for housing and farming reduced their numbers. By 1960 only about 100,000 remained. Between 1960 and 1995, large-scale poaching caused a further and dramatic 98% collapse in the population, now estimated at about 5,000 throughout Africa.
The SA Department of Environmental Affairs said on Sunday the six SA rhinos had been held in bomas in Zakouma National Park for two months after their arrival in Chad on May 4.
“They were released into a temporary sanctuary for another two months to acclimatise to the new environment. In late August the sanctuary fence was removed and the rhinos were free to roam the wider park where they continued to be monitored constantly.
“We can confirm that these two rhinos (a male and a female) were not poached. However, the exact cause of death is not yet known. A specialist veterinarian was dispatched and is now on site in Zakouma National Park in order to conduct a postmortem that will provide more information on the cause of death and assess the situation to advise on further actions. Details of this will be made available once the cause has been confirmed.
“The other four animals have been confirmed to still be alive and are being closely monitored.”