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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Five Black rhinos fly 3700 miles to Rwanda

Rhinos are a highly threatened species. Prized for their horn, which is made from keratin and is a popular ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, they have been  a prime target for poachers. In Uganda, they were once abundant, but the last of the animals fell victim to illegal hunters in the 1980s.  ..

As I grew in Triplicane, have seen hundreds of cows and buffaloes ~ there were couple of ‘kosalas’ too ! – now the situation is different – there are less of buffaloes and bulls too – cows roam on the street, sometime chase, sometimes behave wildly – perhaps in search of food as green fodder is not being provided for .. .. have seen them being injected on roads before mulching .. and other day saw crude mode of IV fluid being injected .. ! ~ this is no post on Triplicane or its cows but on Rhinos !

Rhinos, along with equids and tapirs, are the only surviving members of an ancient and formerly diverse group of ungulates, which originated around 50 million years ago. The black rhinoceros or hook-lipped rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) is a species of rhinoceros, native to eastern and southern Africa including Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Although the rhinoceros is referred to as black, its colors vary from brown to grey. The black rhino has a prehensile (or grasping) upper lip, which it uses to draw plant material into its mouth. Their population decreased by a massive 96% between 1970 and 1992, the largest decline of any rhino species. The black rhino has been the victim of persecution for being seen as volatile and dangerous over the 20th century, but in recent years its major threat comes from poaching for the international rhino horn trade.

The other African rhinoceros is the white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum). The word "white" in the name "white rhinoceros" is often said to be a misinterpretation of the Afrikaans word wyd (Dutch wijd) meaning wide, referring to its square upper lip, as opposed to the pointed or hooked lip of the black rhinoceros.  The species overall is classified as critically endangered (even though the South-western black rhinoceros is classified as vulnerable). Three subspecies have been declared extinct, including the western black rhinoceros, which was declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2011.

Black rhinos are the smaller of the two African rhino species. The most notable difference between white and black rhinos are their hooked upper lip. This distinguishes them from the white rhino, which has a square lip. Black rhinos are browsers rather than grazers, and their pointed lip helps them feed on leaves from bushes and trees. They have two horns, and occasionally a third, small posterior horn. Populations of black rhino declined dramatically in the 20th century at the hands of European hunters and settlers. Between 1960 and 1995, black rhino numbers dropped by a sobering 98%, to less than 2,500. Since then, the species has made a tremendous comeback from the brink of extinction. Thanks to persistent conservation efforts across Africa, black rhino numbers have doubled from their historic low 20 years ago to between 5,042 and 5,455 today. However, the black rhino is still considered critically endangered, and a lot of work remains to bring the numbers up to even a fraction of what it once was—and to ensure that it stays there. Wildlife crime—in this case, poaching and black-market trafficking of rhino horn—continues to plague the species and threaten its recovery.

There is some welcome news as  five rhinos from European zoos (three from Dvur Kralove Zoo, Czech Republic, one from Flamingo Land, UK, and the other from Ree Park Safari, Denmark) have been together in Dvur Kralove Zoo since November 2018 and are making the long journey into Rwanda in June 2019.  The European-born rhinos will be joining 18 Eastern black rhinos that were moved in 2017 to Akagera from Thaba Tholo game farm in South Africa. With a total of 23 rhinos and a diversified gene-pool within the Akagera population, there is a better chance of a healthy population growing in the National Park (the African Rhino Specialist Group recommends at least 20 unrelated founder animals to enable a successful rhino population). Therefore, rhinos best suited for a translocation into Akagera National Park were selected: the selection must include a good genetic mix within the group itself, and the rhinos need to be at the right age, i.e. sub-adult. After a couple of years to settle in, the animals will be just coming into breeding age, and the cows should be capable of giving birth to seven or eight calves in their lifetime.

Thus to culminate the success of a well drawn project, Two males and three females, aged between two and nine, came from various European zoos and safari parks across Europe and arrived at Dvur Kralove safari park in the Czech Republic.  The animals were then flown 3,700 miles (6,000km) to the south African nation and will now join 17 other eastern black rhinos, which were donated in 2017.  All five were born and bred in Europe and have been in captivity for their whole lives.

There are about 5,000 black rhinos remaining across their range in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, making them one of the most critically endangered species in the world. Black rhinos have been killed in increasing numbers in recent years as transnational, organised criminal networks have become more involved in the poaching of rhinos and the illegal trade in rhino horn. Uncontrolled hunting in the colonial era was historically the major factor in the decline of black rhinos.  Today, poaching for the illegal trade in their horns is the major threat, according to the WWF. Powdered horn is used in traditional Asian medicine as a supposed cure for a range of illnesses – from hangovers to fevers and even cancer.

The recent surge has been primarily driven by the demand for horn by upper-middle class citizens in Vietnam. As well as its use in medicine, rhino horn is bought and consumed purely as a symbol of wealth.  Akagera National Park has allowed a number of key species to be reintroduced, including lions in 2015 - which have tripled in number after they had practically disappeared from the country for about 15 years. The five new rhinos will be studied as they settle into their new home and are expected to be a positive addition to the area's ecosystem. 'This unique achievement represents the culmination of an unprecedented international effort to improve the survival prospects of a critically endangered rhino subspecies in the wild,' said Jes Gruner, manager of Akagera National Park. 'Their arrival also marks an important step in Akagera's ongoing revitalization and one that underscores the country´s commitment to conservation.'

The rhinos began their journey on Sunday after months of preparation at Safari Park Dvur Králové in the Czech Republic, according to the Rwanda Development Board. The animals were then flown 3,700 miles (6,000km) to the south African nation of Rwanda.  Rwanda, which has experienced a dramatic turnaround since a 1994 genocide, which left 800,000 dead, is billing itself as a Big Five safari destination to attract more tourists, with many coming to see the rare mountain gorillas. The translocation represents a significant moment for Rwanda's natural history.

Rhinos have been wiped out twice in the country by poaching - once during the 1940s and 50s, when their horns were in demand to make dagger handles, then again in 2010.  Sadly, on an earlier occasion,  Ten black rhinos  died after being moved to Tsavo East National Park. The only survivor was injured after being attacked by a lion.  One of the causes reported was  that the water in the park was too salty, causing the rhinos to become severely dehydrated.  The government had originally planned to move fourteen rhinos to the new habitat, but transportation of the final three was canceled after the initial deaths.  However, further reports suggest that between   2005 and 2017, the Kenyan wildlife ministry  transported 149 rhinos with only eight deaths, according to the Associated Press.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
25th June 2019.
Pic credit : James Hassell/Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute;

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