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Bundu bashing and rhino conservation

A small but influential team stands at the forefront of protecting black rhino and growing the numbers of this critically endangered species.

Last year, I experienced my first black rhino capture for WWF’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP) after just over year on the job as the project’s coordinator. Over the course of two weeks, we travelled to multiple reserves across northern KwaZulu-Natal to capture pre-selected black rhinos from each location for eventual relocation to a new project site. The capture and releases are part of the BRREP’s overall objective to boost black rhino numbers.
The planning that goes into a rhino capture is immense and takes months of hard, carefully considered work and preparation before everything comes together for a brief window period – a time that everyone looks forward to each year. With the current rhino poaching onslaught, much of the work involving rhinos these days focuses on protecting them, or worse, dealing with the aftermath of poaching.

Capturing and relocating black rhinos for range expansion provides a welcome positive aspect to rhino conservation, which is why the incredibly skilled and dedicated individuals coming together each year for the capture always look forward to it as much as we do at BRREP.

© Leandri Gerber
Rhinos are given ear notches to help identify them once they have been relocated to a project site.
It’s in the genes

While my core work focuses on general project management and data management, I also spend a good amount of time working on black rhino genetics. This work is crucial because, with the low number of black rhinos left in the world (around 5000) and their inherited high relatedness, it’s become important to maintain genetic diversity in populations through detailed genetic population management, to prevent in-breeding.

My days are spent tracking down DNA samples from black rhinos on project sites, living and deceased, and working with the Veterinary Genetics Lab at the University of Pretoria to carry out paternity testing for offspring and relatedness testing for all BRREP rhinos.

When it’s time to capture offspring to set up a new population, we can compare their DNA to make sure that they represent good genetic diversity.
BRREP is working on its 12th translocation, and for the first time in BRREP’s history, we will be able to analyse the selected rhinos for genetic relatedness to each other before moving them to their new home, making sure that the individuals making up the population are genetically diverse. 

© Melissa du Preez/WWF-SA
Black Rhino Range Expansion Project coordinator Ursina Rusch and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife vet Rowan Leeming administer the antidote before we dash to safety while the rhino wakes up.

During last year’s captures, I was involved in collecting DNA, including hair, tissue and horn samples from each rhino which meant I had to be on the scene quickly once the animal is darted. This gave me a front-row seat on -following the darted rhino through the bush in the lead capture vehicle to be there and ready when it finally falls asleep.

The ride is often rough and since the vehicle has to keep up with the rhino no matter what, the motto for any passengers on the vehicle is simple: hang on for dear life.
Once darted and loaded into their crates, the rhino are driven to the new project site where they will have plenty of space to make their home and breed the next generation of black rhinos.

© Charlotte Cornwallis
Specific black rhino data is captured before dehorning and collaring at the BRREP project site.
From capture to release

Releasing rhinos into their new homes is just as meticulously planned as the captures and brings its own excitement, especially as things don’t always go according to plan.

During the release on our 11th project site, one black rhino bull made a run for it and broke through the reserve fence within 12 hours of having been released. Quick thinking on the part of the release team that was still on site saw a helicopter, a vet and a flatbed truck with a crane organised within a couple hours to go look for the runaway. Luckily the bull only ventured onto the property next door, and was safely returned to the project site. He settled down well into his new home after those adventurous few hours and has since been seen with a number of females.

© Ursina Rusch/WWF
Ground teams react swiftly when a rhino needs help. In one instance, a black rhino ran through the perimeter fence and needed to be recovered from neighbouring land.

Captures and releases are always exciting times, and the part of my job that I enjoy the most is combining this field work, such as collecting DNA at capture with management by science, working with the results of the DNA analysis to compare relatedness between individuals and reach the best possible genetic management outcomes for the BRREP rhinos.
BRREP has helped me reach a childhood dream: to fight alongside other committed conservationists to bring back some of our key species from the brink of extinction.

When I was a mere 8 years old, growing up in Canada, I told my parents that I wanted to become a zoologist in Africa to catch animals for zoos (as I grew up I realised that this passion would be best served in conserving animals in the wild, however). 
Our hugely successful project makes me proud and privileged to be part of it. The most rewarding part of my job is that whatever I work on today, be it rhino data management or genetics, often sees positive results in a very short period of time.

It is the ultimate motivator and reward, to see the fruits of one’s hard work and long days not only pay off, but play a part in saving a critically endangered species that is one of Africa’s most iconic animals. 

Ursina Rusch Photo
Ursina Rusch , WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project coordinator.

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