Background: Rhinos in Zimbabwe
Rhinos are on the decline worldwide and, overall, poaching is occurring faster than the species can breed. More than 2,200 black and white rhino once roamed Zimbabwe in 1999, but over the last 19 years, rampant poaching for rhino horn has decimated our population to just over 700 individuals.
There is no silver bullet solution to this complicated problem. A deeply embedded cultural demand for rhino horn for tradition medicine runs deep throughout Asia and Indonesia. The endemic political instabilities, economic hardships and severe droughts throughout Africa all play into supply and demand dynamics.
“Poaching of rhinos goes faster than the species can breed.”
In Zimbabwe however, increased security measures, animal husbandry and successful management practices in the reserves and on private lands have seen a small but steady increase in black rhinos, with our white rhino population stabilized. This is encouraging and rare; southern Africa is losing on average 2 rhinos a day elsewhere.
Despite the measured success, all rhinos remain vulnerable and are still under imminent threat from extinction. These conservation gains could change instantly if we don’t keep up our efforts. If we’re to conserve what’s left of our rhino population in Zimbabwe, we need to protect and grow these isolated populations through ongoing conservation management.
The Need for Conservation Management
Illegal wildlife trafficking is a US$ 7+ billion industry, growing at 5-7% per annum. Iconic species such as rhino, elephant, vultures and pangolin in Africa are being lost at a rapid rate and many are losing the race for survival. In Zimbabwe, they focus on tenacious apprehension and prosecution of poachers, intensive physical protection of rhinos, and rigorous management of rhinos through de-horning, translocation for genetic diversity, and pathology.
Forensics also play an important role in the black rhino conservation strategy. Criminal poaching syndicates transit through Zimbabwe with their wildlife products from other countries so black rhino horn confiscated in Zimbabwe could originate from Namibia for example. In order to present a successful case for prosecution, they need solid forensic science on geographic origin to present in a court of law.
“If we know where the rhino horn comes from, it will be easier to catch the poachers.“
VFWT is compiling a genetic map of the black rhinos to help identify geographic origin of confiscated rhino horn. In addition to helping identify where a rhino was poached and help ensure a successful conviction, this will allow authorities to focus on where to increase security measures. This is valuable given the extreme shortage of resources most wildlife agencies and NGOs experience. If we know where the rhino horn comes from, it will be easier to catch poachers.
Furthermore, The Trust is making husbandry decisions based on this genetic mapping that they, and others before us, have mined over the years so that they can maintain as much genetic diversity as possible within and between these small isolated populations.
Why Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust?
Over the last 30+ years, the VFWT wildlife veterinarian Dr. Foggin has set a standard in the veterinary world for rhino immobilizations. Before coming to VFWT, Dr. Foggin worked for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management. He’s performed some 1400 field immobilizations of black and white rhino for routine management operations as well as for translocations and treatments of snares and other injuries. Chris joined the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust following his retirement from Government service in 2012. He is active in wildlife disease diagnosis, as well as field and clinical wildlife veterinary work, and has a wealth of knowledge regarding the known relatedness of most of the mother-calf relationships for the rhino within Zimbabwe.
“VFWT darts, chips and sometimes dehorns more than 50 rhinos each year to protect them.“
VFWT has also become a recognized wildlife forensics laboratory for the region. The Wildlife Disease and Forensic Lab is a member of the African Wildlife Forensics Network that is coordinating labs using scientific analysis to improve apprehension and prosecution of wildlife traffickers.
By determining geographic origin of black rhino horn, they can:
- Alert wildlife officials to criminal activity
- Promote the use of forensic science in biodiversity conservation
- Develop more innovative scientific techniques for tackling wildlife trafficking in the future.
VFWT is on the steering committee of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area’s Animal Health Sub-Working Group and plays a role at a regional level in helping facilitate the collaboration between member states on diseases and wildlife forensics. They’ve also been involved in trans-locating rhino for husbandry and safety issues within Zimbabwe as well as to Botswana and Zambia.
- VFWT immobilizes new rhino calves between the ages of 12-22 months to ear notch them with unique identification numbers, implant microchips, and run health checks on each animal.
- They take hair, blood and skin samples to test for disease and to map genetic information.
- In some areas, they de-horn them as a deterrent to poaching.
- Our team under the leadership of their wildlife veterinarian Dr. Chris Foggin darts, chips and sometimes dehorns more than 50 rhinos each year.
- The VFWT collaborates with other countries in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area by relocating rhinos to enhance genetic diversity in their populations. Their team are experts in trans-locating these animals, ensuring they are safely transported, and unloaded and settled in their new homes. The Trust also responds to injured or snared rhino to treat and release them.