The relocation or five critically endangered eastern black rhinos from European zoos to a national park in Rwanda captured the attention of the world’s media last weekend, and with good reason. The successful relocation of any large animal — and rhinos, one of Africa’s “Big Five,” are among the largest — is cause for excitement, and not just because of the stakes involved, and logistics.
This particular operation — a 30-hour journey in all — required a specially modified Boeing 747-400F, numerous specially designed overland tractor-trailer trucks and the cooperation of four countries: the UK, Czech Republic, Iceland and Rwanda.
The rhinos had to be sedated, fussed over by veterinarians and transported as delicate cargo, like so much breakable china.
They arrived at their destination happy and healthy, if accounts in the local Rwandan media — and the testimony of the accompanying veterinarians and rhino wranglers — are to be believed.
Once the physical operation was successfully completed, the international media moved on to other stories, naturally enough.
Now, though — no pun intended — is when the heavy lifting begins.
The time-consuming, unsexy mission of acclimatizing the zoo-bred rhinos to a life in the wild will take weeks, even months. Though the rhinos are technically inside the boundaries of their new home, Akagera National Park, a protected area of savannah, montane and swamp in eastern Rwanda covering some 1,120 km² (435 sq mi), they will be kept in a holding pen until park authorities and zoologists decide the time has come to release the rhinos back into the wild for good.
Akagera is part of a complex system of lakes and papyrus swamps that forms the largest protected wetland in Eastern-Central Africa — but life in Rwanda is hard, even for a rhino. Rwanda, still beset by political problems, is not immune from the sudden spike in rhino poaching that has driven an already endangered species to the brink.
There is precedent for the successful relocation of wild animals to Rwanda. In 2015 seven lions from South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve and Tembe Elephant Park were reintroduced into Akagera, making them the first wild lions in
Rwanda in more than 15 years.
The lions have since formed a pride of 20-plus cats.
Similarly, in May, 2017, 20 Eastern black rhinos — the same subspecies as the newly relocated animals — were successfully reintroduced from South Africa. Black rhinos had been absent from Rwanda for 10 years or more.
What makes the new project unique — ground-breaking, you might say — is that it’s the first time a project of this scale has been tried between Europe and Africa.
Interestingly, the rhinos — from Dvūr Králové Safari Park in the Czech Republic, Flamingo Land Resort in North Yorkshire in the UK and Ree Park-Ebeltoft Safari on the Jutland peninsular in Denmark — are the direct descendants of rhinos taken from Africa during the German colonial era of the late 19th century. (Belgium was handed dominion over Rwanda at the end of the First World War, as part of the post-war League of Nations mandate.)
The new rhinos are being imported in part to bolster the genetic diversity pool — i.e. gene pool — of the eastern black rhinos that were reintroduced into Akagera in 2017.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, just 5,000 eastern black rhinos remain, which makes them one of the most critically endangered species left on planet Earth.
The project’s accompanying zoologists insist there’s cause for optimism.
“We’ve done a (successful) translocation of rhinos in the past,” Dvūr Králové’s special projects coordinator Jan Stejskal told Czech state radio earlier this week, “and we know that rhinos born in captivity and taken to wild areas actually (reclaim) their instincts very fast.”
The rhinos landed at Kigali International Airport at 2:45 am on Monday. Offloading the rhinos “kicked off,” Rwanda’s New Times newspaper reported, as soon as the plane landed.
Days later, by all accounts, Jasiri, Jasmina, Manny (from the Czech Republic), Olmoti (the UK) and Mandela (Denmark) are doing just fine.