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Raising Rhinos

Since its inception in 2003, veterinarian Dr Jacques Flamand has been leading WWF's Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP), finding new homes where these critically endangered mammals can thrive and breed. As BRREP celebrates its 20th year, Jacques reflects on his career and its many highlights.

© WWF / Green Renaissance
Dr Jacques Flamand helps to revive a darted black rhino following an overland journey to a new rhino range site.
What inspired you to work with wildlife?

As a child growing up in South Africa, I always dreamed of being an explorer or a game ranger. My father’s advice was “get a profession that lets you do what you like”. So, I decided to become a vet, obtaining my veterinary degree from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. I was also lucky enough to spend long summer holidays in Kenya and Uganda which exposed me to the veterinary work that I am still doing today. 

What do you love about your job?

It has allowed me to mix my desires to work with wildlife and have fun doing it. A wildlife vet’s life is never boring, particularly in the formal conservation sector I was in. You are called to deal with a whole range of species at any given time. 

In my life I have had to innovate many times – whether it was testing new drugs on wild rhinos, bringing airlifting techniques into common usage, or figuring out how to fit 17 black rhino onto one cargo plane. These were all things that, while they were new at the time, are becoming increasingly routine. Of course, none of this is a solo endeavour. We work as a team, and I have forged strong friendships along the way. That, too, is most satisfying. 

I like to think that I have contributed to conservation in the broader sense and that this legacy will live on.

The BRREP team secure a large rhino crate at Lilongwe International Airport in Malawi.
© Kyle de Nobrega/African Parks
Unloading a rhino crate at Lilongwe International Airport, Malawi, during BRREP’s first international rhino translocation to Liwonde National Park.
Tell us a bit more about your career to date?

Once I qualified, I returned to South Africa and completed my post-graduate degree in wildlife management. In 1975, I became the only field vet for the Kruger National Park and spent 14 years with the Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife), capturing and relocating rhinos.  

The next chapter in my career took me to Saudi Arabia where, for six years, I led an effort against a TB outbreak among the rare Arabian oryx. In 1998, the Zoological Society of London asked me to start a veterinary programme in Chitwan National Park in Nepal to improve both their handling of wildlife and the health of the livestock outside the park. The hope was that these efforts would also help improve relations between park neighbours and the park authorities.  

After four years in Nepal, I came back to South Africa to embark on WWF’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project. It was only meant to be a three-year project but, thanks to all our partners and donors, we are still going strong after 20 years! 

Dr Jacques Flamand during a rhino release in the Eastern Cape with the province’s MEC of Finance and Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Mlungisi Mvoko, and CEO Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Vuyani Dayamini.
© Micky Wiswedel/WWF South Africa
Dr Jacques Flamand during a rhino release in the Eastern Cape with the province’s MEC of Finance and Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Mlungisi Mvoko, and CEO Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Vuyani Dayamini.
What was the thinking behind the project?

The catalyst for BRREP 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 space.  

When rhinos have enough space to roam and spread out, their reproduction rate improves, and they have more calves which helps to grow their numbers. Also, by removing rhinos from existing sites, we relieve the pressure on the reserve from which they come, which also stimulates breeding. 

We work on about 1000 hectares of habitat to establish a viable new population of black rhinos, so we need around 20 000 hectares of land, which is no mean feat. In good habitat, that would allow them to grow to about 40 or 50 animals. Finding suitable locations for black rhinos is what underpins our work – but it’s easier said than done. 

The BRREP team loading a rhino into a crate for transportation.
© Micky Wiswedel/WWF South Africa
Loading a rhino into a crate for transport to its new home.
So how did you go about it?

At the outset, there was no money to buy large tracts of land, so my job was to seek out suitable places and to create partnerships with landowners willing and able to devote their land to black rhino conservation. Many places were too small, so we negotiated with neighbours to drop their fences to create viable, large blocks of land for the rhinos. 

Removing fences, cattle ranches, and other agricultural uses of that land was a real benefit, not only to black rhinos, but to other species. Animals like wild dogs, elephants, lions and vultures have benefited from having larger blocks of land created for the black rhinos.  

But the challenges remain as it is now very difficult to find places that are big enough, and suitable, habitat for black rhinos. For landowners, it’s also becoming increasingly expensive to protect rhinos as there are considerable security costs including fence maintenance, security guards, vehicles, rhino monitors and so on, needed to protect the rhinos. Nevertheless, we have some ambitious plans going forward, including more cross-border translocations. The rhinos and their calves are depending on us. 

Dr Flamand checks the vital signs of an immobilised black rhino.
© Micky Wiswedel/WWF South Africa
Checking vital signs of an immobilised black rhino prior to waking it up for release onto a new BRREP site.
What does a rhino translocation entail?

Primarily, you need an experienced capture and transport team – we’ve been lucky to be able to work with consummate professionals within Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and SANParks who are very adept at this work. We are also fortunate to have very experienced helicopter pilots who do the airlifts where necessary. 

Ideally, all 20 black rhinos should be introduced to their new habitat within days of each other so that they are all equally new to their new home. That way we reduce the risk of post-release fighting which can lead to mortalities. The moves are also planned for the cooler months to avoid heat stress and, of course, there must be sufficient forage (or food) for the rhinos on their new release site. 

Finally, the level of protection where they are placed must be at least equal to, if not better than, where they came from. This is a principle that we adhere to strictly, but in reality nowhere is safe for rhinos these days as has been shown by the recent uptick in poaching figures for KwaZulu-Natal and on private reserves. 

A black rhino running towards the camera
© Christian Sperka
A black rhino bull on the move on one of BRREP’s project sites.
We’re sure you have many memorable experiences. Any one moment that stands out?

When I was working for the Natal Parks Board, and before helicopters were routinely used, I had to dart black rhinos on foot, and this could be dangerous. I recall approaching my first rhino on foot, hoping it couldn’t hear my heartbeat. I had climbed a tree to get a better look at a facial wound it had but the tree I chose was very flimsy – only about as thick as my arm – and I was only about 1,5m off the ground. The rhino chose to walk straight up to me and started sniffing at my foot as I sat clinging to this tree. Needless to say, if the rhino had chosen to toss its head at the tree, I would have fallen straight onto it. 

A large team work to restrain a black rhino safely.
© Micky Wiswedel/WWF South Africa
Restraining a black rhino after unloading it from a transport crate.
What are some of BRREP’s milestones?

Since the first rhinos were moved in 2004, we have created 15 new black rhino populations in South Africa and Malawi. The move to Malawi in 2019 involved 17 black rhinos and was a new milestone for us.  

Over the years, we have moved a total of 230 rhinos and more than 200 calves have been born on BRREP sites. Another big milestone was in 2017 when, for the first time, we moved adult rhinos that were born on BRREP sites bringing the project full circle.  

We are also pleased to have been able to place some rhinos on community-owned land and also that our sites now account for over 14% of South Africa’s black rhino population. The project has made viable conservation of land and of other species. Some areas are now registered as formal protected areas, remaining formally protected regardless of whomever owns the land in the future. 

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