Bull run: South Africa marks latest rhino relocation to boost populations

By Charles Mpaka 

  • Four black rhinos were translocated to the Bonamanzi Game Reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province in April, part of wider efforts to repopulate the species’ former range and boost their gene pool.
  • Black rhino populations fell from nearly 40,000 in the 1970s to just 2,400 in the early ’90s, due to poaching driven by strong demand for rhino horn in Asia and civil strife in and the flow of weapons across Southern Africa.
  • More effective protection and measures to support population growth have helped black rhino populations rise to around 5,600 today.
  • Translocation helps reestablish rhino populations in parts of their former range where they’ve been extirpated as well as allowing existing populations to continue to breed.

Conservationists in South Africa have translocated four young black rhinoceros bulls to the Bonamanzi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal province, in an effort to preserve the population’s genetics and expand safe space for them to grow.

The black rhinos (Diceros bicornis), listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, were moved to the privately owned Bonamanzi from Weenen Nature Reserve and Ithala Game Reserve, both managed by the provincial conservation authority, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

“Black rhinos are very much at risk, which is why the breeding of these animals at smaller reserves like Weenen Nature Reserve is an important part of the population dynamic and the overall conservation of the species,” said Frik Lemmer, conservation manager at the Weenen Reserve, in a statement announcing the translocation as part of the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP).

“We have a resident breeding bull on Weenen, and that animal should not be challenged in any way by other bulls on a property this size. It could lead to fighting, breakouts, and even the possible death of one of the animals.”

Black rhino standing in a crate in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province. Image by Casey Pratt / Love Africa Marketing.
Black rhino during translocation. The bulls were dehorned to make them less attractive to poachers. Image by Casey Pratt / Love Africa Marketing.

These younger rhinos had reached maturity, and translocating them will help to expand and strengthen breeding opportunities for the threatened species in the province as a whole.

Save the Rhino International says that between 1970 and 1992, black rhino numbers fell from nearly 40,000 to just 2,400, due to poaching driven by strong demand for rhino horn in Asia and civil strife in and the flow of weapons across Southern Africa.

Thanks to more effective protection and efforts to support population growth, including translocations to reestablish viable populations within their former range, their numbers have slowly risen from that low point to around 5,600.

According to Mark Gerrard, managing director of Wildlife Act, a BRREP partner organization, translocating rhinos supports population growth both by reintroducing the species to areas where it has been extirpated by poaching and by relieving population pressure in the reserves where it has successfully been protected.

He said that at several translocation sites, the number of black rhinos is now reaching the point where they can themselves contribute toward establishing new populations, but he acknowledged that significant threats remain.

“Rhino poaching continues to place significant threat and cost on the hosting of such populations, while land of sufficient size for healthy rhino populations remains under threat from alternative uses,” Gerrard said, calling for collaboration between conservation organizations and governments across Southern Africa to address these challenges.

Graphs showing decline of black rhino population, gradual increase of white rhino population in Africa between 1973 and 2017. Source: International Rhino Foundation.
Source: International Rhino Foundation.

Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which investigates and campaigns against environment-related crime around the world, said careful risk assessments are necessary if rhino translocations are to succeed over time.

“[That] was the case with the translocation of 200-plus rhinos from South Africa a few years ago to Botswana … viewed at the time as a safe haven when South Africa was definitely quite the opposite with regard to rhino security,” she told Mongabay.

A decade ago, with levels of rhino poaching in South Africa rising steeply, several different organizations moved both black rhinos and white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) from South Africa to Botswana where they believed the animals would be safer. Following on smaller-scale translocations dating back to the turn of the century, the rhinos at first thrived in their new habitat in the Okavango Delta. But beginning in 2018, poachers — taking advantage of the huge area across which the introduced rhinos had dispersed and its proximity to international borders — began killing rhinos in Botswana so quickly the government began dehorning its wild populations and relocating some to secret locations.

The BRREP’s efforts, placing rhinos on relatively small parcels of privately managed — and secured — land, are different. Since its establishment in 2003, the BRREP has established 13 new black rhino populations in South Africa.

South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment says 451 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2021 — 124 on private land, and 327 killed in government reserves. In 2020, a total of 394 rhinos were poached in South Africa, according to government records, 34 of these on private property. In 2019, 594 rhino killings were reported, 98 on private land.


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