2,000 southern white rhinos who were held captive have been sold and will now be released back into the wild in various locations across Africa.
Every day, Donovan Jooste, a conservationist from South Africa, wakes up to see grasslands filled with about 2,000 southern white rhinos that he is responsible for. These rhinos make up 12-15% of the total remaining white rhino population in Africa. The number of rhinos on this farm, located in the North West province of South Africa, exceeds the population in any single wild location on the continent.
“It’s quite a spectacle. It’s a rare occurrence to witness such a large number in one location,” Jooste comments. “But the potential for conservation is even more thrilling. The real question is: how do we transition from our current state to having them in open, well-protected environments?”
This is a significant inquiry. In September of this year, African Parks was appointed as the official guardian of the 2,000 rhinos. The group had taken over ownership of the largest privately owned rhino breeding facility in the world: Platinum Rhino. The property spans over 7,800 hectares (19,300 acres) and is located south-east of Johannesburg.
Platinum Rhino’s founder and former owner, the South African multimillionaire John Hume, started breeding rhinos in 1992 with about 200 animals. It’s not known how much his idea was motivated by conservation or business, but Hume bet on the idea that the international ban on rhino horn would be overturned. He has retained a stockpile of valuable rhino horn, which wasn’t included in the sale to African Parks.
Due to the ongoing prohibition of international trade in rhino horn, Hume revealed five years ago that his farm was experiencing a financial emergency, as his personal savings were depleted to cover the daily operating expenses of £8,000. In April, the farm was put up for auction starting at a bid of £8 million.
Without any offers received, the rhinos were at risk of being hunted and separated. Jooste, the project manager for African Parks’ rhino rewilding initiative, explains, “Their fate was uncertain. The vulnerability of these rhinos would have multiplied greatly. It would have been harmful to the species, as there was no guarantee for the future of this 15% of the population.”
After receiving emergency financial support from donors, African Parks purchased the land, machinery, rhinoceroses, and other wildlife (including 213 buffaloes, 11 giraffes, seven zebras, five hippos, as well as sheep and goats) for an undisclosed amount. Their goal is to gradually stop breeding and relocate all 2,000 rhinos and their future descendants (approximately 100 each year) to protected areas throughout Africa within the next decade. This effort will help ensure the survival of the species in the long term.
What impact do 2,000 rhinos have on conservation efforts? “The potential is vast. They hold significant ecological importance, being able to preserve and influence landscapes… as well as having economic value for tourism and community benefits. It is a huge endeavor for conservation, but the ultimate goal is a great success.”
During the late 1800s, southern white rhinos were on the brink of extinction due to being hunted by colonial hunters. Mike Knight, the chair of the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group, reports that the population of southern white rhinos in Africa is now growing. In fact, their numbers have risen to 16,803, a 5.6% increase from 2021 to 2022.
The primary danger continues to be poaching. According to Knight, “There has been a decrease in poaching pressure across the continent since 2015.” However, there were still 551 instances of rhino poaching in Africa in 2022.
African Parks estimate that maintaining the farm – including food, animal health, staff and security – will cost approximately 75m rand (£3.2m) a year. “We know the big arrow that rhinos have on their backs, so security is a massive undertaking, with rangers on the ground 24/7,” Jooste says.
The relocation procedure is anticipated to commence in the beginning of next year, with a significant portion remaining in South Africa.
In South Africa, nearly 10,000 rhinos have been killed by poachers since 2007. In 2022, 124 rhinos were lost in Kruger National Park. Jooste expresses concern about relocating rhinos to areas where they may be targeted by poachers, not just in South Africa. He acknowledges the risks involved in this project, but believes that having 2,000 rhinos in open systems is a better option than having them in semi-captive operations.
The remaining rhinos will be relocated to different nations. African Parks presently oversees 22 parks in 12 countries, such as Malawi, Rwanda, and the DRC, which all present promising options for new habitats.
Transporting the animals will be a grand and costly endeavor. African Parks approximates that it will take around £1,200 to relocate each animal within South Africa and over £4,000 per animal within the Southern African Development Community region. These costs escalate to over £40,000 per animal for transfers to central Africa, which necessitate air transportation.
Kester Vickery, a wildlife translocation specialist and co-founder of Conservation Solutions, states that this project will be a significant undertaking due to the large number of animals involved.
Translocations are difficult and risky. In 2018, six black rhinos were moved from South Africa to Zakouma National Park in Chad but four died after release due to the lower nutrition levels in plants at their new home. “There are many risks attached to these translocations, with many unknowns,” Vickery says.
According to Vickery, the main obstacle will be managing health issues and adapting to varying climates in the rhinos’ new habitats. African Parks plans to address these challenges by providing monitoring teams for medical care and disease prevention until the rhinos develop immunity.
Jooste is eager to begin. He is most excited about reintroducing rhinos to open ecosystems for their ecological benefits in protected areas.
“In the future, I hope that when we discuss this topic in 20 years, the number of rhinos is not 16,000 but rather 25,000, 40,000, or even 50,000. Our ultimate objective is to never face a situation where the population of rhinos is so critically low again.”
Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on X (formerly known as Twitter) for all the latest news and features