The Botswana Rhino Reintroduction Project is a true success story: Collaborative conservation efforts between Wilderness Safaris, the Wilderness Wildlife Trust, Botswana’s Department of Wildlife (DWNP) and the Botswana Government have realised a dream with the successful reintroduction of black and white rhino into the wilds of the Okavango Delta.
Coordinator: Map Ives and Kai CollinsRegion: Botswana
BackgroundBy the 1970s, both black and white rhino populations had declined alarmingly in northern Botswana; the black rhino (Diceros bicornis) had previously been confined to the Kwando-Chobe area but the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) had been common throughout the area until the middle of the 20th century. As a result of over-hunting by illegal hunters and worldwide demand for their valuable horns, as well as inadequate protection by the government, even rhino that had been reintroduced from South Africa were drastically reduced. A survey in 1992 showed 19 white rhino while the black rhino was classified “locally extinct” in Botswana.
To help rectify the situation, the Botswana Defence Force and the Department of Wildlife reacted by creating Africa’s finest anti-poaching operation, laying the groundwork for the reintroduction of rhino into the country. All surviving white rhino were moved to protected sanctuaries until such time as they could be released back into the wild, in national reserves.
In 2001 Wilderness Safaris together with the DWNP initiated a programme that has resulted in white rhino* running free and wild in the Okavango Delta. The first group of white rhino arrived in November 2001, Wilderness Safaris having purchased the first three and Gaborone Game Reserve donating one – a bull. As soon as these animals were freed, they became the property of the state.
Wilderness also financed the construction of bomas, much of the transport and much of the monitoring costs. Further rhino arrived as a result of an innovative ‘rhino-for-roan’ swap between South Africa and Botswana. Despite challenges and setbacks – poachers killed two rhino in October 2003 – the project team has continued to work with undiminished fervour over the years. A week after the crime, security was upgraded, the poachers caught and new rhino released, sending a powerful message that the rhino have returned!
The ultimate accolade, though, came from the rhino themselves. Since August 2004, a number of rhino calves were born in the wild, all to mothers released in the programme. The rhino have clearly settled down in their new home.
In late 2003, we began the second phase of the project – namely the reintroduction of the Critically Endangered black rhino into the Okavango. The black rhino had been found in Botswana historically, but tragically they had all been poached before they could be saved. Naturally, this was a situation we wanted to reverse, and having cut our teeth on the white rhino, we were able to obtain black rhino of the correct subspecies and gained an initial pioneer population of two bulls and two cows.
This is a very different animal to the white rhino, and there was a lot to be learnt. In contrast to the white rhino, which feeds exclusively on grass, the black rhino feeds on leaves and twigs in the same way as a kudu or a giraffe does. So the great tracts of acacia-filled country in Botswana offered an ideal habitat. Just two years after the white rhino release, in 2003, the Vice President of Botswana once again was present for the release of the first black rhinos back into the wild – yet another historic moment. Despite at least one birth, the number of animals involved in this release was too small to form a viable breeding population, and the project spent the next few years attempting to add to the original few so as to create an increasing national wild herd.
*Exact numbers of rhino are withheld for security reasons.
July 2015 saw the completion of the largest ever cross-border translocation of Critically Endangered black rhino, in a partnership between Wilderness Safaris, the Botswana, South African and Zimbabwean Governments, individuals and organisations. This was the latest phase in a collaborative project that spans over 15 years and has grown to become one of the most important rhino translocations ever undertaken in the history of conservation.
The last in a series of no fewer than eight international relocations took place during May and June this year, with rhino sourced from five locations in South Africa and Zimbabwe safely transported to Botswana in a Hercules C130 aircraft. In an unprecedented gesture of state and private sector collaboration, the aircraft, along with expert crew, was provided by the Botswana Defence Force.
The project also stands out in terms of the proactive roles the various Governments have played in ensuring its success. A number of the black rhino were donated by the Malilangwe Trust in Zimbabwe’s lowveld, following discussions between the two Ministers of Environment – the Honourable Saviour Kasukuwere from Zimbabwe and the Honourable Tshekedi Khama in Botswana.
The result is that the project has the enormous responsibility of constant monitoring and protection of what is now a population of continental significance. This important work continues to be undertaken by Wilderness Safaris’ Rhino Monitoring Officers, the Botswana Defence Force and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks’ specialised Anti-Poaching Unit.
Botswana also stepped up its efforts in the fight against wildlife crime, with the Botswana Defence Force upgrading its Mission Statement to declare the protection of the country’s wildlife as its “main mission”. Earlier this year, the Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism secured budget from Parliament towards the recruiting, equipping and training of a new 50-man specialist “rhino squad” whose sole duty will be to patrol and protect Botswana rhino, indicating the incredible commitment from the political leadership in Botswana and the security agencies charged with their protection.
The Trust’s fundraising efforts here were invaluable, with a variety of organisations and private donors supporting the project via the Trust and Resources First Foundation.
Over the past 12 months, the partnership has managed to move no less than 1% of the total global population of this highly threatened species into a safe haven in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
Click here to watch a short, inspirational video on the Botswana Rhino Conservation Project.
One of the black rhino translocated as part of the Project has given birth to a calf. Just a few days old, the calf was sighted by Rhino Monitoring Officers during a patrol. While the protective maternal instincts of the mother prevented the officers from getting close, both appeared to be in excellent health.
Annual Report 2014
Towards the end of 2012 and through 2013 there was evidence of much dispersal of rhino from their core range. This has probably come about through the natural “coming of age” of many of the rhino born between 2003 and 2007, many of whom are now old enough to either breed calves of their own in the case of females, or to look at establishing a territory of their own if they are bulls.
This has resulted in a need for increased monitoring activity by Wilderness Safaris officers who spent considerable time on lengthy patrols to previously untravelled areas. What is of interest here is that the patrols continue to be fully integrated with the Botswana Anti-Poaching Unit and members of the Botswana Defence Force. Thus, on one patrol there are two members of each unit together with two members of the monitoring team. Their results are truly impressive given the high floodwaters of the last few years, and the large areas over which they have to move.
Although this dispersal is expected and completely natural, it is pleasing to see that the rhino are seeking out prime habitats and are breeding at an extremely high percentage per annum, with several calves located especially during the rainy season, which coincides with green grass and therefore the mothers’ good condition.
A small founder population of black rhino was captured in a joint collaboration with the Botswana and South African Governments. The rhino are destined for safe haven in Botswana. This follows the successful capture and release of a group of black rhino last month and is part of an ongoing conservation project to establish a core population of this threatened species in Botswana.
Annual Report 2013
2012 was another successful year for the project, during which the rhino monitoring team worked very closely with Botswana’s Department of Wildlife’s Anti-Poaching Unit as well as the Botswana Defence Force, with regular patrols throughout the areas where reintroduced rhinos have settled. More births in the past year once again indicate a continually growing and healthy population in optimal habitat. Several horn implant operations were also carried out to enable continued rigorous monitoring and security of the existing free-ranging populations.
The Wilderness Wildlife Trust has provided funding for a research vehicle, aerial tracking flights, vet costs and horn implants. This aids in:
-Daily rhino monitoring patrols which are sent out to locate and monitor condition of the rhinos as well as record any behaviours and breeding status.
-The patrols and tracking provides the basis of the Botswana Rhino Relocation and Reintroduction monitoring programme which involves locating the rhino by means of telemetry or tracking and recording their GPS localities, condition and behaviour patterns – all of which is added to the Rhino Monitoring Database.
Annual Report 2011
During 2010 the rhino monitoring team, comprising ‘Poster’ Mpho Malongwa, ‘George’ Njunja James, Mohaladi Sarefo, Simon Dures and Kai Collins, kept up with all the rhinos and recorded a few more births which is wonderful news, proving that the animals have settled down well in this area. The monitoring was carried out in close collaboration with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, the Anti-Poaching Unit and the Botswana Defence Force.
Joint monitoring patrols with the DWNP Anti-Poaching Unit are achieving good results, and are also successful in tracking rhino as they move further away into new areas to find the best grazing. Thanks to the project, breeding populations of both African rhino species have been re-established in the Okavango Delta, and aside from the value that is added to world rhino numbers and population distributions, guests visiting Wilderness Safaris camps have the privilege of encountering rhino on game drives – an encounter that enhances the concept of changing lives of people and Africa.
The main drive of the project now is to raise funds to acquire more black rhino in order to form a healthy founder population in the Okavango Delta. With a large enough population of black rhino to make up a minimum viable population, it is hoped that they will begin reproducing and re-expanding their range into parts of Botswana where they have not been seen in many years.
The Botswana Rhino Reintroduction Project is a true success story: Collaborative conservation efforts between Wilderness Safaris, Wilderness Wildlife Trust, Botswana’s Department of Wildlife (DWNP) and the Botswana Government have realised a dream with the successful reintroduction of black and white rhino into the Okavango Delta.
Report – 2009
Over 2009, the rhino of the Okavango Delta continued to be monitored daily on Chief ‘s Island in close collaboration with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), the Anti-Poaching Unit (APU). Three white rhino were born during the year, affirming how well the species is doing in the Okavango.
A major horn implant replacement operation was carried out in 2009. The operation was made possible by the combined efforts of Wilderness Safaris staff, the DWNP, APU, the DWNP Air Division, Sefofane Air Charters, Northern Air Maintenance and highly skilled vets. The operation was highly successful thanks to the hard work and dedication of all involved as well as generous funding from guests and from the Wilderness Trust.
In 2003 four black rhino, two males and two females, were released into the Okavango Delta. The animals adapted well to their new surroundings, but as is typical of black rhino being reintroduced into the wild, they did not breed as readily as the white rhino that were introduced previously. There was great joy in September 2009, when a tracking team consisting of Malongwa and three members of the APU carried out a rhino patrol to check up on these animals and found one of the females with her calf, estimated to be about six months old. The name of the new calf is ‘Boipuso’ – meaning ‘Independence’, as it was located during Botswana’s Independence week.
The current focus of the project has shifted to raising funds to bring in more black rhino in order to form a healthy founder population in the Okavango Delta. With a large enough population of black rhino to make up a minimum viable population, it is hoped that they will begin reproducing and re-expanding their range into parts of Botswana where they have not been seen in many years.
Report – 2008
This past year has been extremely successful with the birth of four new white rhino calves. They are all doing well and are monitored regularly.
The second Rhino Patrol Vehicle – purchased to enable following up on rhino sighting reports in other areas of the Okavango Delta – has proved to be invaluable. Rhino that have not been seen in a long time and are in very remote and inaccessible areas can now be located. The rhino monitoring officers continues to monitor the rhino in the area daily.
The project is currently focusing most of its attention on raising funds in order to bring in a healthy supplementary population of black rhino, most likely from Zimbabwe. The resounding success of the reintroduction of white rhino means that efforts can now being put into building a viable population of black rhino that can begin re-expanding into parts of Botswana where many years ago they once roamed.
2006 saw the birth of only one calf to the white rhino population in Moremi. This was the second calf born to a female released during November 2002. Her first calf was born during May 2004 making the two calves almost two years apart. This is a sure sign that conditions here are perfect for the white rhino, in that they have security, space, food and water.
Map Ives – The story so far
The Botswana Rhino Reintroduction Project is a thrilling collaboration between Wilderness Safaris and the Botswana Government, and is one of the most important conservation projects in which we have ever been involved. The aim is to reintroduce the two African rhino species into the wild in Botswana, and to conduct ongoing research into these fascinating species.
Once the rhinos were released, we activated our monitoring programme, using radio transmitters embedded in the rhino’s horns to track them and learn about their movements, diet, and social behaviour. This was the first time that anyone had been able to study wild rhinos in the Okavango Delta, and presents an incredible opportunity for ongoing research.
At the same time, working with the wildlife scouts of the Anti-Poaching Unit, we are able to provide excellent security for the rhinos, and to actively deter any would-be poachers. From the outset, we have had excellent sightings of the rhinos, and we saw a great deal of fascinating interaction between this and other species: elephant, lion, warthog and giraffe, to name but a few – none of which of course had ever seen a rhino before!
Releasing these four rhinos was just the first step in what has grown to be a very ambitious project. In order to increase the number of rhinos in the Moremi Game Reserve, an exchange programme was undertaken with South Africa, whereby rare roan antelope from northern Botswana were donated to South Africa, to assist important breeding initiatives there, and well over twenty white rhinos travelled up to Botswana. They were flown by the Botswana Defence Force to Maun, and then driven up Chief’s Island to Mombo – a mostly nocturnal journey of almost 15 hours. On arrival at Mombo, each batch of rhinos was again kept for a few weeks in the bomas (holding pens) to allow them to acclimatise to the new sights, sounds, and smells of the Okavango, before being released.
We staged several releases in the next two years, and almost thirty white rhinos were reintroduced into the Delta. It is estimated that 20 white rhinos are needed to form what is known as a “viable breeding herd,” so once we exceeded that number, we were impatient to see when the rhinos would begin to increase their numbers on their own.
We began to observe all the social and territorial behaviour we would expect from them, and we learnt a great deal about their response to the annual flood, to rainfall, and to other animals.Finally, in July 2004, just two years after the first releases, we found something that made us all very excited indeed: the telltale, tiny tracks of a white rhino calf. We were able to follow these tracks and find a calf aged just 10 days old – an impossibly cute, miniature rhino, and the icing on the cake for us. Not only had the rhinos adapted to their new home, but they had also bred and now given birth successfully – and we were looking at the first rhino born in the wild in this country in at least 15 years. Another truly historic moment, and one that made us all immensely proud.
We named the first calf ‘Dimpho,’ which means “many gifts” in local Setswana – and we trust that she will indeed be the first of many. Since then, we have found eight more white rhino calves, so they are breeding extremely well. Despite the high concentration of lions and hyaenas in the Mombo area, the mother rhinos have done an exceptional job of raising their calves – some of which are almost a year old now, much larger than when we first saw them!
We can confidently say that this project has been a great success. An absent species has been reintroduced and is doing extremely well here. We have had veteran guides visit us who last saw rhinos in this area in the 1980s, and to see a wild rhino here again quite literally brought tears to their eyes.As with almost all the animals here, the rhinos are very relaxed and do not feel at all threatened by the game drive vehicles, which means that guests at Mombo and Little Mombo regularly enjoy great sightings of these very special animals, and catch some wonderful photographic opportunities.
In late 2003, we began the second phase of this project – namely the reintroduction of the endangered black rhino into the Okavango. The black rhino was historically found in Botswana, but tragically they were all shot out before they could be saved, and so for a decade this species was officially “locally extinct” in Botswana. Naturally, this was a situation we wanted to reverse, and having cut our teeth on the white rhino, we were able to obtain black rhinos of the correct subspecies – again, a pioneer population of two bulls and two cows.
It turns out that this is a very different beast to the white rhino, and there was a lot for us all to learn. In contrast to white rhinos, which feed exclusively on grass, the black rhino feeds on leaves and twigs in the same way as a kudu or a giraffe does. So the great tracts of acacia-filled country here offer them a wonderful habitat. Just two years after the white rhino release, we once again welcomed the Vice President of Botswana to Mombo, this time to open the gates to release the first black rhinos. Yet another historic moment – and sometimes it is breathtaking to look at how much has been achieved in such a short time.
While we will continue to monitor, protect and study the white rhinos, the emphasis of this project will now shift much more to the black rhino. We want to release many more of these animals here, so that we can reach a level where they too will become a viable breeding population. This highly endangered species is difficult to come by, and the SADC (Southern African Development Community) Rhino Group is assisting with sourcing further animals towards their relocation at Mombo. We are committed to continue with this valuable project until rhinos of both species are once again successful in the wilds of northern Botswana.
With this goal in mind, we are involved in another very ambitious international rhino transfer – this time moving black rhinos from threatened areas in Zimbabwe to Botswana. We are now actively engaged in raising funds to make this happen. Finally, we are looking at fitting satellite transmitters to our future releases, so as to minimise disturbance during monitoring. However, these devices, and running them, cost considerable sums of money, so it may depend on donations to the project.
We would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the expertise and assistance we have been given by South Africa National Parks (SANParks), as well as the funding generously given to us by the Wilderness Safaris Wildlife Trust, the Tusk Trust in the UK, and SAVE Australia.