Last year, I experienced my first black rhino capture for WWF’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP), after just over a year on the job as the project’s coordinator. In the hope of increasing the KwaZulu Natal black rhino population, we spent two weeks traveling to multiple reserves across northern KwaZulu-Natal to capture pre-selected black rhinos from each location for eventual relocation to a new project site. The capture and releases are part of the BRREP’s overall objective to boost black rhino numbers.
The planning that goes into a rhino capture is immense and it takes months of hard, carefully considered work and preparation before everything comes together for a brief window period – a time that everyone looks forward to each year. With the current rhino poaching onslaught, much of the work involving rhinos these days focuses on protecting them, or worse, dealing with the aftermath of poaching.
Capturing and relocating black rhinos for range expansion provides a welcome, positive aspect to rhino conservation, which is why the incredibly skilled and dedicated individuals coming together each year for the capture always look forward to it as much as we do at BRREP.
While my core work focuses on general project management and data management, I also spend a good amount of time working on black rhino genetics. With the low number of black rhinos left in the world (around 5,000) and their inherited high relatedness, it’s important to maintain genetic diversity in populations through detailed genetic population management. This prevents inbreeding. My days are spent tracking down DNA samples from black rhinos on project sites, living and deceased, and working with the Veterinary Genetics Lab at the University of Pretoria to carry out paternity testing for offspring and relatedness testing for all BRREP rhinos. When it’s time to capture offspring to set up a new population, we can compare their DNA to make sure they represent good genetic diversity.
BRREP is working on its 12th translocation, and for the first time in BRREP’s history, we will be able to analyze the selected rhinos for genetic relatedness to each other before moving them to their new home.
During last year’s captures of KwaZulu Natal black rhino, I was involved in collecting DNA, including hair, tissue and horn samples from each rhino, which meant I had to be on the scene quickly once the animal was darted. This gave me a front-row seat to following the darted rhino through the bush in the lead capture vehicle.
The ride is often rough and as the vehicle has to keep up with the rhino no matter what, the motto for any passenger is simple: hang on for dear life.
Once darted and loaded into their crates the rhinos are driven to the new project site, where they will have plenty of space to make their home and breed the next generation of black rhinos. BRREP has helped me reach a childhood dream: to fight alongside other committed conservationists to bring some of our key species back from the brink of extinction.
It is the ultimate motivator and reward, to see the fruits of your hard work and long days not only pay off but play a part in saving a critically endangered species that is one of Africa’s most iconic animals.