Namibia holds almost a third of all the black rhinoceros remaining in Africa, and 95 percent of the south-western subspecies (Diceros bicornis bicornis). Rhino numbers have increased steadily under an well-established and innovative conservation and management programme, but the future of the south-western black rhino will depend on Namibia’s ability to maintain adequate standards of protection, biological management, monitoring and sustainable utilisation of rhino, and expand available areas of range to accommodate further population increase.
The North West (Kunene) population, which is the largest population of black rhinoceros outside a protected area, has increased over the last twenty years under strong partnerships between the Ministry of Environment & Tourism (MET), NGOs (Save the Rhino Trust), concessionaires and the local people in Kunene and Erongo Regions.
However, over the last 15 years, annual growth rates of the Kunene black rhino have steadily declined even as the population has increased. Also, new challenges now face the area, particularly the need to secure the long-term sustainability of monitoring programmes and to further integrate tourism with conservation objectives. Annual growth over the last 5 years stands at 2.5% and dropped below 2% in 2003. This is well below the IUCN/SSC recommendation.
Being an extremely arid area all translocations should be well planned with the aim to expand the current range into identified areas within neighbouring communal conservancies, and MET should be able to react on a short notice when conditions are at the best for the rhinoceros to be translocated. It is crucial that surface water and peak conditions prevail at the identified release sites to ensure the best chance of such an operation to succeed. Specific individuals will be identified from the database earmarked for the operation; such individuals need to be found at very short notice when conditions are ideal and therefore at least 20 to 25 animals will be fitted with transmitters in 2006. Once conditions are at their peak in the release sites during 2007 the individuals will then be located by air, caught and moved immediately to the release site. Free release as practiced in Namibia has given us excellent results over the last three capture seasons and cuts down the tremendous costs of boma training animals. MET wants to translocate to bulls to the Kliprivier in Khoadi-Hoas communal conservancy where a single cow resides; during this translocation newly custom-built equipment will be field tested for the first time.
- To hire a helicopter (Hughes 300) with experienced capture pilot;
- A receiver unit that will be used in post-release monitoring of the black rhinoceros (fitted by MET with radio transmitters during capture) in Khoadi-Hoas conservancy by both the shepherds of the conservancy (the conservancy needs a receiver to be able to follow the rhinoceros as training will be given to assist them to start a rhinoceros tracking tourism enterprise which is well controlled and well organised;
- A second receiver unit to be used by SRT in monitoring of the animals fitted with transmitters in the concession area who will be translocated to other conservancies in 2007;
Transponders will be fitted in three places in all animals immobilised; and
- To train staff in different procedures (e.g. field ageing – P. Hitchins)
The Trust is providing financial assistance to assist in the hiring of a helicopter to be used for the capture and translocation of two male black rhinoceros from the Palmwag concession area and two receiver units for follow-up post-release after the planned operation. As per Namibian policy transponders will be inserted in all animals immobilised. In addition, Mr. P. Hitchins, the world expert on rhinoceros ageing, will train field personnel in the field ageing and development of an adapted field ageing reference for Namibia.
Kunene Black Rhino Update April 2006
Between 24th March and 4th April 2006, thirteen animals (seven males and six females identified from the Kunene database) were fitted with transmitters in the upper Barab and Aub rivers of the Palmwag Concession area. Reasons for choosing this area were:
- Highest density of black rhinoceros within the current range;
- Skewed towards males; and
- Close or at carrying capacity.
During the last Biological Management Workshop held at Grootberg with the Governor (Mr. Mururuo) his councillors, the Traditional Authority (Chief J. Garoëb) and his leaders, Conservancies, NGOs (SRT, IRDNC and Welwitchia), MET, private tourism enterprises in the area (Wilderness Safaris, Damaraland Camp), Round River Conservation and DICE (Univ of Kent) it was recommended that the first step should be in the testing of equipment and translocation procedures involving male animals. For that reason two males were translocated from the upper Aub and Barab rivers to the Kliprivier in the #Khoadi – //Hôas
Lastly a further nine animals were marked and fitted with transmitters in the Poacher’s Camp and Springbok River area of the Torra Conservancy. This was done to assist the community to get controlled and sustained rhinoceros tracking with paying clients.
Due to the altitude above sea level, extremely mountainous terrain as well as the high temperatures experienced, a turbine helicopter with the capability to dart animals with four people in the helicopter was used. The helicopter was further used to ferry emergency equipment for example oxygen, a chain saw, water, equipment needed to fit radio transmitters and personnel into areas which could not be reached by vehicle. The Bell Jet Ranger used proved beyond doubt its value in this area and for this type of work and should be the minimum size helicopter used in future operations.
A C172 was used as a spotter aircraft with highly experienced staff from SRT, which facilitated in finding animals, guiding the helicopter to the animal to be caught and guided the vehicles to the capture site. It was also used to locate and check on already processed animals. Although the C172 is a bit small to be used in this area, the spotter aircraft saved a lot of money and was an essential part of the success of the operation.
Rhinoceros Recovery Truck:
The Rhinoceros Recovery Truck proved its value and was a major success with all necessary equipment immediately available for processing of the immobilised animal. Having all equipment neatly sorted out and ready to use made a huge difference to the speed in which an animal could be processed.
Black Rhinoceros Retrieval Trailer:
This trailer was designed by R&P staff and built locally in Windhoek for use under extreme conditions; the whole retrieval system was a novel approach and withstands the most stringent tests in terrain where the only other possibility was the airlifting of animals by helicopter. Two animals (a mature and a young adult bull) were successfully translocated from some of the most inaccessible terrain. Money for a second trailer will be sourced to increase the recovery fleet to at least two trailers.
Black Rhinoceros Crate:
A special crate based on designs from SANParks were built and a prototype tested on the operation; minor changes will be made to decrease its weight and make it more animal-friendly. This crate proved itself under the above conditions and makes future translocations a real possibility in this type of terrain. Another two crates will be built with available donor funding.
A major component of the operation was to train not only MET staff but also SRT, Conservancy Game Guards or Shepherds, IRDNC and other stakeholders in capture and translocation equipment; use of a spotter aircraft; guiding of ground team and helicopter to capture site using radio communication; transporting of animals; release procedure; and monitoring of newly released animals.
The veterinarian was Dr. Pete Morkel, a Namibian who is currently working for FZS in Tanzania. Dr. Morkel a previous MET Game Capture Veterinarian, is the world authority on rhino capture and translocation and has been assisting MET with all major rhino captures since 2001. He was assisted by Dr. Mark Jago, a private Namibian veterinarian. In an operation of this magnitude and under these conditions a second veterinarian is of utmost importance as he reduced down-time significantly as the workload can be shared looking after the welfare of the immobilised animal.
We were fortunate to have Mr. P. Hitchins, the original developer of using dental records for the ageing of black rhinoceros in the late 1960s – early 1970s. Mr. Hitchins gave guest lectures to all present during the capture operation, Round River students and EEI and DPWM staff in Etosha. He trained staff on all animals that were immobilised in the field.
- Ground team left camp at Palmwag between 5H30 and 06H00 to a central locality within the area demarcated for the capture.
- As soon as light conditions allowed, experienced trackers from SRT followed fresh tracks.
- The spotter aircraft manned by the pilot and one or two experienced trackers got airborne and start to search the designated area.
- The helicopter with the pilot, veterinarian and two experienced trackers on board searched the capture area in close liaison with ground tracking teams and spotter aircraft.
- As soon as a rhinoceros was spotted the spotter aircraft guided the helicopter and ground team to the locality.
- Once the rhinoceros was darted the spotter aircraft guided the ground team in over the shortest or best route.
- Where it was impossible for the ground team to reach the immobilised animal, core members of the ground team were flown in by helicopter with equipment to process the animal in the shortest time possible.
Every evening a full debriefing session were held concerning the activities that took place that day and was then followed by planning for the next day.
Between four and five animals were processed per day except on day 1 and day 2, when the two animals caught were translocated from the upper Barab – Aub to the Kliprivier in #Khoadi – //Hôas Conservancy.
This operation was a huge success. An important factor was that the helicopter time was reduced from over two hours per animal in 2005 to less than an hour in this operation, furthermore only essential staff and vehicles were used during the operation cutting down on S&T and all staff agreed not to claim overtime. The specially developed and designed capture and translocation equipment ensured furthermore that the operation could be conducted without the use of any heavy trucks and equipment. The duration to fully process one animal during 2005 was on average 1¾ of on hour and in 2006 only 55 minutes with more procedures done in 2006.
The specially designed and custom built capture equipment proved its value under some of the most extreme conditions, the important result of the field trails is further that modifications needed will now be done before the rest of the equipment is manufactured. This system will furthermore prove its value as a quick reaction unit.
Once conditions are at their peak in the release sites during 2007/8 the individuals will then be located by air, caught and moved immediately to the release site. Free release as practiced in Namibia has given us excellent results over the last three capture seasons and cuts down the tremendous costs of boma training animals and will be used as the preferred method.