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Black rhino project celebrates 20 years of raising rhinos

Since its inception in 2003, the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project has contributed towards the overall growth of this critically endangered species.

The Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP), which focuses on the range expansion and growth of the critically endangered black rhino, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

Since the first rhinos were moved, the project has translocated 230 rhinos to create 15 new black rhino populations on sites in South Africa and Malawi. More than 200 rhino calves have been born on project sites.

As a result of these and other efforts, black rhino numbers have more than doubled in the past two decades from their low point of fewer than 2500 individuals to a more recent estimate of around 6200 animals (according to official IUCN figures released in 2022). Yet, this is only a fraction of their historic population of an estimated more than 100 000 animals at the turn of the 20th century before they were hunted to near extinction.

The main aim of the BRREP is to increase the numbers of this critically endangered species. To achieve this, more space is needed for the rhinos, and this is done in two ways: by removing black rhino from reserves with existing populations and moving them to new areas where they have space to breed and thrive. This work is done in partnership with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) and the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA).

Wildlife vet Dr Jacques Flamand, who has led BRREP since its inception in 2003, explains: “The catalyst for the project was the declining growth rate of the critically endangered black rhino population in South Africa – with one of the reasons being that the rhinos were simply running out of suitable space.”

Over the  years, the project has also seen many innovations for translocating rhinos.

BRREP is famous for its iconic “flying rhinos”, having perfected the technique of airlifting black rhinos out of inaccessible areas by attaching strops to their feet.

The black rhinos on BRREP sites are some of the most closely monitored black rhino populations in Africa, using a variety of tools and strategies to keep track of the rhinos, record births, mortalities, home ranges and social interactions. These include tracking on foot, satellite/GPS collars, camera traps, aerial surveillance and dogs that are specially trained to track rhinos.

More recently, the project has focused on population management, striving to genetically profile all rhinos on project sites to understand population demographics and assist with managing populations. As a result, BRREP holds the largest repository of black rhino DNA profiles in the world (300 and counting) and regularly uses this information for management decisions.

BRREP continues to be a world leader in black rhino conservation providing significant contributions to saving this critically endangered species. BRREP and its partners strive to continue their effective and incredible efforts to grow one of Africa’s most iconic wildlife species.

Project milestones

  • In 2004, BRREP moved its first 15 rhinos to a game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal.
  • In 2017, the project came “full circle” when, for the first time, rhinos that were born on a BRREP site were removed and translocated as part of a group to establish a new population. Today, about 50% of rhinos translocated originate from BRREP sites, the other 50% are still removed from EKZNW and ECPTA reserves.
  • In 2019, BRREP successfully completed its first international black rhino translocation, the largest one by air in history, to Malawi. The move required the team to fly the rhinos from Durban in South Africa to Lilongwe in Malawi in a Boeing 747 and from there transport them by road for a further six hours to their final destination.
  • Rhinos on BRREP project sites now account for over 14% of South Africa’s black rhino population.
  • In 2023, BRREP celebrates 20 years of raising rhinos – not only by using helicopters to airlift them but also by stimulating breeding and the raising of new calves on BRREP sites.
© Micky Wiswedel/WWF South Africa
The Black Rhino Range Expansion Project is known for its use of helicopters to airlift rhinos out of inaccessible locations.

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