Eastern black rhinos have returned to Rwanda ten years after the last individual was spotted, in a historic move for the nation and the species.
African Parks, the conservation organization which manages Akagera National Park (as well as numerous other national parks and protected areas across the continent on behalf of governments), in collaboration with the Rwanda Development Board and with funding provided by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, translocated a founder population of 16 Eastern black rhinos from South Africa to Rwanda over the first two weeks of May.
The People’s Postcode Lottery and the Dutch Government also provided additional support to the project.
“Rhinos are one of the great symbols of Africa, yet they are severely threatened and are on the decline in many places across the continent due to the extremely lucrative and illegal rhino horn trade,” said African Parks CEO Peter Fearnhead. “The rhino’s return to this country however is a testament to Rwanda’s extraordinary commitment to conservation and is another milestone in the restoration of Akagera’s natural diversity.”
The Eastern black rhinos were carefully selected and captured over the course of February and March this year at South Africa’s Thaba Tholo Game Ranch.
The individuals were transported by truck and plane to their new home in Akagera National Park where they were first kept in an enclosure for a short time to give the animals a chance to settle after their long journey before they were released into the wider park.
“The return of the rhinos to Akagera National Park opens a new chapter in our conservation journey and we are grateful to all our partners that contributed to this achievement,” said Clare Akamanzi, the CEO of the Rwanda Development Board. “We are fully prepared to welcome them and ensure their safety for the benefit of our tourism industry and the community at large. We couldn’t be more excited for their return.”
Donated to the Rwandan government by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the rhinos will be looked after by African Parks as part of its overall responsibility for the total management of Akagera and managed in accordance with a verified rhino management programme.
“Several years ago, as we were struggling to have success combating rhino poaching in other parts of Africa, I made a commitment to President Kagame that we would support the reintroduction of rhinos in Rwanda because we knew this country would protect them,” said Howard G. Buffett, Chairman and CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. “Today marks another milestone in Rwanda’s emerging leadership on the continent in conservation, ecotourism and most importantly, good governance.”
And the rhinos will indeed be well protected in Akagera National Park. Since African Parks took charge of the protected area in 2010, it has overhauled law enforcement in the park, reducing poaching to an all-time low in six years. Today the park is flourishing, and numerous species have rebounded in the park.
Seven lions were successfully reintroduced in 2015, whose population has since more than doubled.
To ensure the best possible outcome for rhinos in the region, staff have undertaken years of research, planning and preparation, including training by Akagera staff in rhino tracking and monitoring. Consultation with experts and specialist groups also occurred to secure a genetically appropriate and available source of Eastern black rhino for reintroduction.
Security measures have been implemented specifically to ensure the safety and well-being of the rhinos once in the park. A canine anti-poaching unit and an expertly-trained rhino tracking and protection team have been established, and a helicopter has been deployed in addition to other security measures implemented specifically for the reintroduction of rhino – all made possible with funding provided by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.
Akagera was historically home to a diversity of large African mammals, many of which were sadly hunted to local extinction over recent decades. Back in the 1970s, more than 50 black rhinos thrived in Akagera National Park, but their numbers declined under the pressure of wide-scale poaching until the last confirmed sighting of the species in 2007.
In 2010, African Parks has partnered with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to form the Akagera Management Company (AMC), which manages Akagera with a vision of restocking the park with species that have become locally extinct and securing their long-term protection.
The reintroduction of the Eastern black rhino forms part of this vision. Their return will be the final step towards restoring Akagera to its previous natural glory. The return is also expected to elevate the park’s international profile as the country’s only Big Five tourism destination, boosting the local economy, directly benefiting communities, establishing the park as a valued national asset, and helping to solidify Rwanda as a leader in African conservation. The big five are the lion, the leopard, the rhino, the elephant and the African buffalo.
With fewer than 5,000 black rhino remaining across their range in the wild, of which approximately 1,000 are the Eastern black rhino subspecies, this reintroduction is an urgent, progressive, and valuable opportunity for their conservation, and serves as a story of hope for the species.
Read this article and more in issue n° 75 of Hope Magazine.