In an emergency intervention, the dehorning and translocation of six rhinos – four female adults and two calves – from the uMkhuze section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park to the Western Shores has been successfully completed.
The translocations followed after a detailed in loco inspection of uMkhuze by senior iSimangaliso and Ezemvelo park managers, together with section rangers, as part of the ongoing drought monitoring across iSimangaliso.
This was followed by an aerial survey to verify the condition of individual rhino in uMkhuze. Animals are rated on a scale of one to five i.e. five is optimum and one is very poor. During the survey, around 15 adult rhinos found to be in the lower end of class 3 (fair) and below were identified for translocation.
“While the current white rhino population in the uMkhuze section of iSimangaliso is below its ecological carrying capacity,” explains Andrew Zaloumis, CEO of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, “and artificially supplied water points are flowing well, the severity of the current drought, coupled with extremely high ambient temperatures, has resulted in food shortages and severe nutritional stress for some of the animals. Consequently, it was determined that the rhino in poor condition should be relocated as an emergency measure. It was important to do this before their condition deteriorated to a point where they would have been too weak to be translocated.”
This is not the first time that iSimangaliso has implemented such pro-active measures. In 2004, during what was then the second most severe drought in a century, 23 rhino were moved from iSimangaliso’s uMkhuze section to the Eastern Shores, where they have thrived on the coastal grasslands and adapted well to the wetter conditions.
“It is imperative to step in to save this iconic species once again in light of the severity of this drought. uMkhuze is currently experiencing one of the most severe droughts in recorded history – almost as bad as the one experienced in the 1950s,” says Zaloumis.
The removal of rhino under these circumstances is not without risk. The excessively hot conditions in northern KwaZulu Natal, as well as the weakened state of the rhino, required the capture team to work from first light and as fast as possible to get the animals sedated, dehorned, crated and transported to their new destination two hours’ drive away. Having one of the world’s best teams in the business, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Game Capture unit, is a major factor in the success of the relocation,” Zaloumis points out.
The good news, however, is that recent rainfall has afforded some relief and enabled further translocations to be halted. Some pans are filling and there are patches of water in places closer to quality grazing areas. This has enabled the rhino – whose behavioural conditioning instinctively informs them of their home range – to move away from the poor overgrazed areas because they no longer need to stay within close range of the waterholes. The distance that each rhino travels differs depending on age, condition and energy levels, but the plentiful pools and puddles mean that they can travel more freely between water and the best grazing.
Zaloumis stresses that, “while the rain has bought some time, far more rain is needed before the rhino are completely out of danger. Intensive monitoring will continue and the situation reassessed early in the New Year”.
Five adult white rhinos have succumbed to the drought in uMkhuze, some after getting stuck in the mud at iNsumo Pan and being too weak to get out or to be pulled out. This is one of the greatest risks during a drought. With pans now filling, this risk decreases.
“During the 1950s when the world’s population of white rhino fell to a mere 300 individuals, a bold initiative to capture and relocate them brought the species back from the edge of extinction,” says Zaloumis. “Now, 60 years later, they once again face multiple threats to their survival – poaching for their horns and more recently, the reduction of suitable habitat due to persistent severe drought, often worsened by poor land management practices upstream from protected areas. Rhinos are not only a priority endangered species globally, they are also iconic in South Africa. We will do whatever we practically can to ensure their protection and survival.”
Since the implementation of iSimangaliso’s recent strategy to dehorn all rhino on the Western Shores – where they were deemed to be more vulnerable to poaching – no further rhino have been lost in that section. This dehorning and relocation does not relate to the recent poaching of the rhino on the Eastern Shores.
For more about South Africa’s first World Heritage Site read: iSimangaliso: Park for the People