We all enjoy a good comeback story. Numerous Hollywood films and pieces of literature around the world are centered on the theme of fairy tale finishes; high school dropouts becoming millionaires and sports teams turning their fate around in the dying seconds of the game. A similar tale has occurred with the most unsuspecting species in South Africa; the rhino.
Although rhino populations across Africa are currently under threat, I’d like to take you back over a hundred years on a walk through the turbulent history of this animal and to possibly one of the greatest conservation success stories that took place right on our doorstep.
Few, if any, animals hunt or are a threat to rhinos other than humans, and so a major determinant in the population of these animals has been down to human activity and involvement in their areas of occurence. They are naturally slow-moving animals with poor eyesight and generally not too difficult to approach on foot. This made them easy targets for the many explorers and big game hunters that roamed through Southern Africa and indeed across the greater continent from the mid 19th century. Prior to this, both Black (Hooked-Lipped) and White (Square-Lipped) rhino were plentiful throughout the Sabi Game Reserve and north of it, into what would later become the Kruger National Park.
No formal census was conducted during these times but accounts from early explorers and hunters all lead us to believe that the populations were strong. William Cornwallis Harris’ early journals state that rhinos were almost pests, so numerous were they.
However, by 1896, a mere 51 years after the first European hunting settlement was established in the Lowveld, no trace of any white rhinos could be found. A handful of Black rhino managed to remain until 1936 when district ranger Harry Kirkman reported what would be the last sign of them, just south-east of Skukuza, the headquarters of the Kruger National Park. In 1940, having found no sign of either species throughout the park, both the Black and White rhino were declared regionally extinct in the greater Kruger National Park due to unethical and uncontrolled hunting practices as well as habitat destruction.
Not all was lost though. At the same time, early stringent protection of the same species in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve on the eastern coast of South Africa had allowed the rhino population to flourish there to such a point that they were exceeding the amount that the land could provide for. This gave authorities and conservationists the opportunity to initiate one of the largest translocation undertakings of the century.
Dubbed ‘Operation Rhino’, more than 4000 White rhinos were relocated out of the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi to various areas of Southern Africa where they had once roamed abundantly. As you can imagine, this was no easy feat; finding, darting and transporting the world’s second largest land animal over hundreds of kilometers. Beginning in 1961 with 4 breeding-aged individuals and continuing for the next 12 years, a total of 345 White rhino were reintroduced into the Greater Kruger National Park. Gradually they began to settle into the areas in which they had once flourished.
Today the population is approaching a healthy 5000 (approximately a quarter of the global population) in the Greater Kruger National Park, making it the largest and densest population of White Rhino in the world. Black rhino have followed a similar path albeit on a smaller scale due to their more specific habitat requirements and overall smaller population globally than that of the white Rhino. A total of 90 individuals were reintroduced – also from the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve – between 1971 and 1990 and today have risen to approximately 400 individuals throughout the Greater Kruger National Park.
A visit to Londolozi today is almost certainly added to by a sighting of White rhino, possibly even with a small calf if you’re lucky, which in my opinion is one of the most encouraging sightings, given the plight of the species in recent years. Black rhino on the other hand are seldom encountered at Londolozi and only two have been seen this year, both deep in the southern part of the reserve where the habitat is somewhat more suitable for them. However, the point is that they are here and have the potential to grow in numbers.
Success stories like ‘Operation Rhino’ can quickly remind us of the power we hold to mend our environment and turn the tables on the destruction we can so easily bring about.
On your next visit to Londolozi, when you hopefully find yourself in the presence of one or more of these beautiful creatures spare a thought for the efforts of those conservationists that come before us and monumental task that they took upon themselves, largely not for their own benefit but for the benefit of the environment.