- Almost 20 years after heavy poaching eradicated the Zambian black rhino population, a project for the reintroduction of the species has started. Five black rhinos from Kruger National Park in South Africa will be flown into Zambia's isolated North Luangwa National Park by the end of May.
At the beginning of the 1970s, an estimated 4,000 to 12,000 rhinos still lived in Zambia. Thereupon followed "the great slaughter" of the now endangered species. By the mid-1980s, some 100,000 elephants and all rhinos had been killed by poachers. The chase for ivory and rhino horn for lucrative sales on the black market resulted in the total eradication of black rhinos in Zambia.
With an improved control system in Zambian national parks, Zambian authorities and international donors now feel the time is right to reintroduce the black rhino to Zambia. The German Frankfurt Zoological Society together with South Africa's SANParks and the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) have joined forces to organise a rhino exchange programme that "hopefully will be the start of a new rhino population in Zambia."
Today, "Zambia is a very safe country and poaching almost doesn't occur anymore," says Christof Schenck of the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS). "Therefore, partners in Germany and Africa have come together in a unique action to reintroduce these charismatic rhinos to the ample plains along the Luangwa River."
Following the arrival of the first animals tomorrow, all the participating institutions are to celebrate the occasion by the signature of a common declaration. Hapenga Kabeta, Director General of the Zambian Wildlife Authority, is to host the event.
The operation is of a complicated nature. To resettle the endangered species in Zambia, using South African animals, a larger exchange was necessary, to secure the Kruger Park population's sustainability. The South African park will catch and transport five young beasts to Zambia.
In exchange, the Kruger Park will receive the two-year-old rhino cow "Hama" from the Frankfurt Zoo in June to freshen up the genetic basis of the population. "Hama" is reaching puberty in two years and will thus hopefully provide Kruger rhino bulls with healthy offspring. The cow is following two of her elder sisters that left headed off to South Africa last year.
South Africa, with a population of 350 animals, now has the largest population of the Southern African black rhino sub-species, which also used to live in Zambia. Still, the genetic pool for the population is seen as relatively small to assure a healthy future of the black rhino.
The preparations in South Africa have been going on for months. "One bull, one cow and three youngsters have already been caught weeks ago in the Kruger National Park," says rhino expert Pete Morkel. The veterinarian coordinated the exchange in cooperation with the Rhino Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
The animals were drugged by a Kruger Park specialist team, with shot narcosis into the pachyderms using rifles from a helicopter. Thus, the beasts were immediately taken care of by a veterinary and sent to an enclosure in the Park to be prepared for their journey.
- Only those animals that are really relaxed and healthy and adapt well to the feeding situation are allowed to fly, says Mr Morkel. In their new home, the beasts will be under veterinary supervision in a quarantine enclosure for six week before they will be allowed to move into a larger, fenced area. After one year, the entire North Luangwa National Park will be at their feet.
According to the Frankfurt society, these five animals only will mark the start of a greater rhino exchange scheme. "During the next years, the population will be supplemented by another 15 animals so that a vital population can be established on the long term," says Mr Morkel.
The five founders of the Zambian black rhino population will get an implantation of a transmitter in their nose horn before being set free. In that way, scientists will be able to follow their movements and their protection against poachers will be enhanced.
The North Luangwa Conservation Project and the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) have prepared for the reestablishment of a Zambian rhino population for several years. An important prerequisite has been the establishment of security against poaching and a proper park management in North Luangwa; a costly affair.
Today, an equipment of 142 well educated rangers with all necessary infrastructures (vehicles, communication technology, etc) take care of the security in the extensive park. Preparing for the rhino resettlement, even a special rhino protection task force was established.
But also the local population had to be prepared for the arrival of the beasts, which are known for occasional aggressive outbursts against mankind. Village infrastructure thus also had to be improved to withstand rhino-power.
The isolated North Luangwa National Park is located in the north-eastern half of Zambia, some 250 kilometres west of Malawi. There are no major roads leading to the park, which holds no major settlements.
According to Go2Africa, the park is "one of the most spectacular surviving wilderness areas in Africa and has been called one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world today." It has a "bewildering" diversity of habitats, including "pure mopane forests, lush riverine forests and sausage trees laden with long dangling sausage-looking fruit."
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