South African white rhinos relocated to DRC’s Garamba National Park

Fifteen years ago a survey of Garamba National Park (NP) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo concluded that the last wild northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) had died and that this sub-species were now extinct in the wild. Now, the white rhino is back in Garamba. Professor Keith Somerville fills us in.

Sixteen southern white (Ceratotherium simum simum) have been relocated to the park from private reserves in South Africa, which are home to over 5,000 rhinos on more than 150 private ranches or reserves. The reintroduction was carried out by African Parks, which has managed Garamba since 2005.

African Parks’s CEO, Peter Fearnhead, said, ‘This reintroduction is the start of a process whereby southern white rhino, as the closest genetic alternative can fulfil the role of the northern white rhino in the landscape’. More southern white rhinoceroses are expected to be sent to Garamba National Park in the future. These, too, are likely to be sourced from South Africa which, despite the heavy poaching, has the world’s largest white rhino population at an estimated 12,968 animals, down over 2,000 from 10 years ago as a result of the poaching.

For the DRC and Garamba, the relocations are a big step forward to restoring white rhino to the core of their former range – albeit a different sub-species. The head of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, Yves Milan Ngangay, described the release of the rhinos and plans for future relocations as, ‘a testament to our country’s commitment to biodiversity conservation’.

The sad history of the Northern White Rhino

There are now no wild northern white rhino, despite persistent reports of their survival in very small numbers in South Sudan. On a closely guarded reserve in the Laikipia region of Kenya, the two surviving northern white rhinoceros are living out their lives with no hope of them breeding, as they are both females. They live under constant protection from poachers in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy. The last male, known as Sudan died on March 19th 2018 at ol Pejeta, effectively rendering the entire subspecies functionally extinct.

Northern white rhinos were once abundant across savanna and open woodland habitat from southern Sudan, northern Uganda into northern DRC, the Central African Republic and Chad. In the 19th century they were also found further south in the Karagwe region of northern Tanzania and in neighbouring areas of Rwanda.

Hunting for meat, horn and sport in the late 19th and first six decades of the 20th century reduced numbers from tens of thousands to just a few thousand. Half-hearted hunting regulations were introduced by the British in Sudan and Uganda, by the Belgians in the Congo and the French in central Africa and Chad, but this did little to stem the steady depletion. As late as 1960, there were still around 2,360 northern white rhinos spread thinly across a shrinking range. But widespread poaching to feed demand in Yemen, where horn was used for dagger handles, and in the China and the Far East, where horn was used widely in traditional Chinese medicine steadily reduced numbers.

Civil wars in both the Democratic of Congo and neighbouring Sudan obstructed anti-poaching measures, with heavily armed Sudanese armed groups, militias from the DRC itself and members of the Ugandan LRA population entering the park and poaching. An aerial survey in 2004 revealed that numbers had dropped to about 17-22 and by 2006 this was down to four and a 2008 survey found no white rhinos at all in Garamba, leading to the conclusion by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that the northern white rhino was extinct in the wild.

South Africa’s white rhino, a pool for translocations

South Africa’s rhino have been hit hard by poaching and there are continuing problems with protecting both southern white rhino and black rhino. Nearly 10,000 black and white rhinos have been poached in South Africa since 2007.

Pressure from poaching and the huge costs of anti-poaching and security measures are being felt by private rhino owners, who now hold just over half of South Africa’s white rhinos. It is estimated that private ranchers spend more on security per rhino than South African National Parks, nearly Rand30,000 per rhino compared with less than Rand9,000. As Clements, Balfour and Di Minnin wrote recently, ‘This high spend on security may have reduced poaching risk, but it has also reduced the benefits accrued from owning rhinos. Even for rhino owners who are not financially motivated, the growing costs of protecting rhinos from poaching are difficult to sustain.’ But the costs and effort did not stop 124 rhino being killed on private holdings in South Africa in 2021, up from 91 in 2020. Poachers appeared to have started to vary their targets away from national parks and state or provincial-run reserves and are targeting private rhino owners in a variety of provinces. The costs and threats perhaps explain why South Africa’s largest private rhino owner, John Hume, put his Buffalo Dreams Ranch and his 2,000+ white rhinos up for sale this year – though the auction failed to find a buyer and negotiations are still underway about how to protect his rhino. Hume was paying out an estimated £2 million a year to protect his rhinos. And over the past few years increasing numbers of private owners have been selling their rhinos and getting out of the business.

This may have a benefit for countries like Rwanda and now DRC, which are seeking to re-establish (albeit with a different sub-species) white rhino populations. African Parks, again, has been involved in relocating white rhino from private owners in South Africa to parks it manages. In November 2021, sent from South Africa to Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, becoming the largest rhino translocation in history.

Relocation is always difficult and may result in deaths in transit or soon after release, due to stress and changes in the water quality or vegetation. But African Parks appears to have been successful in reintroducing black rhino to Malawi’s Liwonde and Majete NPs and white rhinos to Akagera. One must hope that for the future of the white rhinos in Africa that the Garamba relocation is successful and that the availability of white rhino from South Africa’s private owners can be turned from a problem into an opportunity.

Professor Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (University of London), a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent and a fellow of the Zoological Society of London. He has written books on the ivory trade, human-lion, human-hyena and human-jackal coexistence and conflict, and is now writing a book for Pelagic Publishers on the African rhino species.

Last updated