Researcher: Verity Bowman
Region: Hwange National Park
The white rhino population of the Main Camp area of Hwange National Park was almost wiped out in the early 1990s from poaching. The small surviving population was augmented in 1999 and 2004 by translocations of animals from Matobo, which has an over-abundance of white rhino in a relatively small area, which has in turn led to deaths from fighting and rhino moving out of the protected area. However further animals are needed in Hwange to ensure the viability of this population and provide a better experience for guests.
The translocation of white rhino from Matobo to Hwange fell within the rhino management plan for 2006, drawn up between Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (PWMA) of Zimbabwe and the other “rhino stakeholders”. The rhino management programme under the PWMA has been running since the onslaught of poaching in Zimbabwe in the mid-1980s. Since 2000, the work has concentrated on management of black and white rhino in Intensive Protection Zones (IPZs) within the Parks and Wildlife Estate i.e. Matobo, Sinamatela and Main Camp (Hwange National Park) and Matusadona, as well as the wildlife conservancies. Activities include ear-notching and micro-chipping for individual identification of rhino, radio horn-implants, de-horning and snare removals.
During 2007, a founder population of rhino was moved from Matobo to the south-eastern area of Hwange; the Wilderness Safaris Wildlife Trust funded the bomas or pens built to house the white rhino when they arrived.
The release pens were built near Ngweshla Pan, which is close to Wilderness Safaris camp facilities. Together with the PWMA, the Trust is involved in the pen management and in long-term monitoring of the white rhino population in the area.
The rhino were immobilised in Matobo by darting from helicopter. After immobilisation the rhino were ear-notched using standard patterns of the Programme in Zimbabwe. The animals with adequate horn-size had radio-transmitters implanted in the horns. Thereafter the rhino were crated and transported to the pens at Hwange.
The animals were held in pens for a few weeks, during which time they were carefully monitored to ensure that they remained healthy and were eating. After the pen adaptation period they were released. The rhino are currently being radio-tracked using standard radio-telemetry techniques, either from the air, using a Microlight aircraft already in the area, on foot or by vehicle. This is particularly important during the immediate post-release period, but will continue on a long-term basis.
In 2009, two more white rhino were translocated from Matobo National Park to the Wilderness Concession in Hwange National Park. While funds were originally allocated for the relocation of five animals, for various reasons, including limiting the off-take from Matobo (pending age to gender ratio analysis) only two females were relocated. Pregnancy tests carried out on blood samples taken from these animals confirms that both are pregnant.
Once captured the crated rhino were loaded onto a truck and transported to Hwange. Since the sandy road conditions in Hwange make it imperative to have four-wheel-drive and there is only one suitable vehicle available, these transport costs made up the bulk of the funding from the Trust. During the course of the journey to Hwange the rhino were continually monitored by an attending veterinarian to ensure their comfort and safety. The veterinarian also ensured Coordinator: Marwell Trust Zimbabwe that the animals were correctly offloaded from the crate and settled in the boma.
Before offloading, the rhino were fitted with radio transmitters, allowing personnel to locate and monitor them rapidly and reliably. Data obtained will also provide information on space use, home ranges and individual associations. The animals were also ear-notched for ease of identification and dehorned to reduce the risk of poaching.
Removal of excess numbers of rhino in Matobo creates more space and resources for the remaining animals and encourages breeding and ongoing population growth. Hwange’s population will benefit from the genetic diversity introduced by the Matobo population. The increased opportunity for tourists to encounter rhino in National Parks contributes to tourism revenue for Zimbabwe, and raises awareness about rhino conservation.