(RHINOS/WILDLIFE/ENDANGERED SPECIES) The dense forests and grasslands of South Africa were home to the world’s largest population of southern white rhinos and the three remaining sub-species of black rhino.

However, prior to 1895, the white rhino populations had nearly been eradicated. Estimates at the time counted only twenty to fifty rhinos left.

Through conservation efforts and early (yet crude) translocation processes, the rhinos began to recover.  This species then became actively protected by the Natal Parks Board and by 1960, the population counts rose to approximately 1,650.

The last 15 rhinos in Mozambique were murdered for their ivory this past month. Photo Credit: Getty Images
The last 15 rhinos in Mozambique were murdered for their ivory last spring. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Similarly, the black rhino population in South Africa was nearly extinct by the 1930s.  Translocation from portions of Eastern Africa (which held higher population counts) aided in the initial recovery of the black rhino numbers in South Africa.

It was not until 1962 that a more vigorous conservation effort began with the relocation of nearly 180 black rhinos to protected areas in the Natal Reserve over a period of eight years.  Another ten pairs of rhinos were also relocated to Kruger National Park in 1971.  Shortly after, Kruger National Park received an additional forty-seven black rhinos. This group eventually grew to become the second largest black rhino population in the world.

Unfortunately, these populations in Kruger National Park are once again under threat by over-hunting and poachers. Since 2007, the number of poached rhinos has risen from 13 in 2007 to 1,004 last year alone.

The heaviest hit areas reside along the eastern border with Mozambique, where their rhino population has been completely decimated by poachers.  It is estimated that the horns of rhinos can fetch close to $65,000 per kilogram; a large pay day for poor and struggling individuals living in parts of Africa.

In the latest census, only about 2,000 black rhinos remain, with an estimated white rhino population under 9,600. The high rate of poaching in Kruger has led officials to enact a plan of translocation yet again, moving about five hundred rhinos to private reserves or areas of Africa that are harder for poachers to reach.

At an estimated $2,000 a piece to translocate, this undertaking is no cheap feat. According to the head of Kruger National Park’s veterinary services, Markus Hofmeyr, the plan is to capture six to eight rhinos a day during the cooler, fall months of the year. However, there is no completion date set for the project. Yet, in a previous relocation effort of rhinos in 2009, they were able to move about 250 within the year.

A black rhino is airlifted to new home. Photo Credit: Green Renaissance
A black rhino is airlifted to his/her new home. Photo Credit: Green Renaissance

Seemingly lost in the discussion of translocation is the impact such a move is having on the overall health of rhinos.  Not all rhinos have been able to survive such a trip.

In a study conducted by Richard Emslie, Rajan Amin, and Richard Kock for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) titled Guidelines for the in Situ Re-Introduction and Translocation of African and Asia Rhinos (2009), the mortality risks are apparent.

From 1989-2006, the rate of mortality of translocation on black rhino populations was 8.5 percent or sixty-five rhinos out of a total of 765.  Forty percent of those sixty-five died due to stress, with release fighting and capture related deaths (such as a reaction to tranquilizers or injury during the chase) following behind at 24.6 and 18.5 percent respectively.

So the question arises: does the risk outweigh the reward? A dead rhino is a dead rhino, whether the animals died from noble efforts to save him/her or selfish efforts to exploit the species.  The causal link between the two is still the rampant illegal trade of rhino horns. Until that issue can be approached and eradicated, the plight of the rhino will continue on until there are no more left to save.

— Jessica Barrett, Wildlife Researcher for the Kashmir World Foundation