Black Rhinos’ Big Return to Rwanda: What Happened in Uganda?

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Capture team in South Africa assists in navigating a tranquilised rhino towards the crate for transport; photo by Lindsey Tainton (African Parks)
This week 10 Eastern black rhinos arrive to Akagera National Park, completing their move from South Africa. Beasts from the first batch are already grazing in the savannah on the Tanzanian border.

Rwanda’s last indigenous rhinos were spotted exactly 10 years ago. Some decades earlier over 50 black rhinos called Akagera their home, however, relentless poaching eventually took them all.

In 2017, Akagera National Park is a very different place. Managed by an international conservation non-profit African Parks, it has already successfully welcomed back lions and seen their first cubs. Now rhinos complete the fabled Big 5 (the buffalo, the elephant, the leopard, the lion and the rhino).

African Parks has overhauled law enforcement in the park, bringing poaching down to an all-time low. Special security measures are there to ensure the safety of the rhinos: a rhino tracking and protection team, a canine anti-poaching unit, and a helicopter for air surveillance – all funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. Such protection is essential taking into account that less than 5,000 black rhinos exist in the African wilderness, of which only 1,000 are the Eastern black rhino subspecies.

Canine anti-poaching unit of Akagera National Park; photo by Marcus Westberg
Add to the endangered rhinos the graceful giraffe, the striking zebra and the scarce roan antelope, and you have an amazing wildlife collection in the wider Gorilla Highlands region. In the second savannah national park, Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, rare tree-climbing lions and the fascinating boat ride on the Kazinga channel are the highlights.

Yes, our region now has it all!

But are these news rhinos actually visible to visitors of Akagera, in the wild? Sarah Hall, the tourism and marketing manager responded: “They are now all released into the wider park so there is a chance they can be seen by tourists. But they are black rhinos, they are solitary and like thicket areas so the chance of being seen is probably fairly slim at this stage.”

The question was called for because of the experience with the rhino reintroduction in Uganda. More than a decade after they arrived, Uganda’s white rhinos can still only be seen in the Ziwa Ranch sanctuary.

What happened?

Sign at Ziwa Ranch; photo by Marjan Novak
Angie Genade, Executive Director of the Rhino Fund Uganda emailed us an explanation: “Taking into consideration that the first rhino only arrived on the sanctuary in 2005/2006 at the age of 5 years (3 male and 3 female) and the first calf was born in June 2009, and between 2009 and Dec 2016 an additional 13 calves were born from 3 breeding females, with a gestation period of 16 months, I think the breeding program has exceeded all expectations.”

Genade does not know what the next stage will be, it depends on the government, but she is in favour of creating a second rhino sanctuary. This will become necessary in about 4-6 years to avoid inbreeding, and Genade believes a fenced site within Lake Mburo National Park could be a good location. “To put only 6 rhinos into a national park that is not fenced would be contradictory to our mission of reintroducing a species to the country as a whole,” she says.

To get another perspective we contacted David Bakeine who once worked at Ziwa and wrote a controversial book about his experience. “4-6 years is a long time unless planning for that solution is already taking place. Female rhinos that are already in Uganda need to be exposed to other males, not their own fathers and sons for better breeding, and this should better happen sooner than later. There is a potential conflict of interest as well. Ziwa is a private property and the lodge there is owned by Genade’s son, so she would not sign for animals to be taken away.”

Rhinos resting at Ziwa Ranch; photo by Marjan Novak
Bakeine added some rhino information: “Having white rhinos in Uganda and black rhinos in Rwanda should be complementary in tourism development. White rhinos are sociable animals and crashes of up to 30 animals have been seen together, they are grazers. Black rhinos are browsers, solitary in nature and only coming together during mating. It’s important to note that both black and white rhinos are actually grey in colour but get their names from the shape of their mouth. It is wide and flat in white rhinos and hooked in black rhinos (also known as the hook-lipped rhino).”

text: Miha Logar