Within the 58 000ha Liwonde National Park there is a 4 000ha fenced sanctuary used as a breeding refuge for species now rare to Malawi, such as hartebeest, buffalo, roan and black rhino (Diceros bicornis minor). Black rhino became extinct in Malawi in the late 1980s, and was reintroduced to Liwonde National Park's sanctuary in 1993. The intention was that this small reintroduced population would establish itself within the sanctuary, breed and eventually provide a source of animals to establish other nuclei in the country and thus contribute to the global conservation effort.
This has proved to be a sustainable and successful project, with a second breeding population now established at Majete Game Reserve. Following relocations and natural mortality, 10 black rhino currently call the Liwonde sanctuary home.
The biggest challenges the project faces are space and security. The fenced sanctuary limits movement, which results in unavoidable social conflict within the group. Security concerns prohibit their wider release. The sizes of both the Liwonde and Majete sanctuaries allow for only one dominant reproductive male in each. This limits reproductive rates and can potentially lead to inbreeding - but a more immediate concern is that the natural order dictates that young males are chased away by the dominant male, ensuring gene dispersal and preventing overcrowding. In a fenced area this cannot happen - so the young male is at constant risk of injury and death from the dominant male.
In September 2009, the adult female Jabesi gave birth to a new calf, resulting in the enforced independence of her sub-adult male offspring, Ntangai. Without the protection of his mother Ntangai was targeted by the dominant male and was found in very poor condition, with the typical inguinal wounds associated with this kind of conflict. Without intervention the wounds would have been fatal. As a result Dr Pete Morkel was called in and the rhino darted, restricted to a boma and treated. The young bull since this date was confined to the boma to prevent further conflict and injury.
Ntangai could not be in a boma indefinitely and so had to be released into the greater Liwonde National Park. This was to establish a pattern for release of black rhino into larger parks, which will ultimately increase the reproductive rate of this species and ensure its survival in the wild. A major concern, however, is security. There has been an upsurge in rhino poaching in Africa and Asia, and without adequate protection and monitoring Malawi risks losing its black rhino population for the second time. It is therefore essential that Ntangai's location and movements are well understood and closely monitored, and to that end he was fitted with a radio transmitter in his horn prior to release.
Sadly, while the operation was performed successfully and the animal released into Liwonde, the young rhino was located a few days after release having died as a result of an infection picked up at some point during the boma recovery period.
While tragic, the incident, the first of its kind in the history of the sanctuary, has resulted in a strategic review of the Liwonde Sanctuary and the Malawi black rhino meta-population management