Some 80 percent of the world’s rhinos live in South Africa—and the country has been hard hit by poachers on the hunt for these horned creatures. In an effort to conserve dwindling numbers of black rhinos, a team of experts recently moved 16 members of the critically endangered species from South Africa to safer territory in Eswatini, as Reuters reports.
Among the relocated rhinos are adult breeding bulls and cows, juveniles and small calves, making it a “demographically complete group,” Big Game Parks, a private organization that promotes both eco-tourism and conservation, said in a statement. The animals had formerly been kept at a game ranch in South Africa, but the threat from poachers had driven the cost of protecting the animals to “unsustainable levels,” Big Game Parks explained.
In 2018 alone, 769 rhinos were killed in South Africa, according to Save the Rhino—a marked decline from 2017, when 1,028 rhinos were poached, but still a disconcertingly high figure. Eswatini, a landlocked country bordered by South Africa and Mozambique, has a better track record; only three rhinos have been poached there over the past 26 years, thanks to “very stringent” laws and “solid political will and support for wildlife conservation,” Big Game Parks said.
Black rhinos, the smaller of the two African rhino species, were pushed to the brink of extinction by European hunters and settlers in the 20th century, according to the World Wildlife Fund. By 1995, their numbers had plummeted by 98 percent, to less than 2,500. Dogged conservation efforts have brought the population back to between 5,000 and 5,455 individuals, but the species is still considered critically endangered. Poaching for the international rhino horn trade remains the most pressing threat.
The effort to move the 16 rhinos from South Africa to Eswatini took 11 months of planning. Other recent black rhino relocations have not gone so well; last year 10 out of 11 black rhinos died while being transported to a wildlife park in Kenya, and the lone survivor was subsequently attacked by lions. For the Eswatini relocation, the team worked carefully to ensure that the animals would be transported safely and with minimal stress. Expert rhino vets and translocators participated in the initiative, and Eswatini police were on hand to escort the rhinos to their new home. Big Game Parks notes that calves less than six months old were moved and reunited with their mothers without injury—a sign of the effort’s success.
The 16 rhinos will now live at a national park recommended by the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group. Before being released, the animals were dehorned, to discourage poachers from attacking them. But work to keep the rhinos safe will be ongoing.
“[L]ast week’s relocation marks the end of the first phase of this project,” Ted Reilly, chief executive of Big Game Parks, said. “With all 16 rhinos safely captured in South Africa, transported over 700 km across an international border, dehorned and safely released into prime habitat, the second and most arduous phase of monitoring and security has just begun!”