By Professor Keith Somerville 

Fifteen years ago a survey of Garamba National Park (NP) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo sadly concluded that the last wild northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) had died and that the sub-species of white rhino was extinct in the wild.  Now, the white rhino is back in Garamba.  Sixteen southern white (Ceratotherium simum simum) have been relocated to the park from private reserves in South Africa, which are home to over 5,000 rhinos on more than 150 private ranches or reserves.

The reintroduction was carried out by African Parks, which has managed Garamba since 2005. In cooperation with Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) and the Canadian mining company Barrick Gold, which funded the rhino relocation, the rhinos were flown from South Africa to the DRC. 

African Parks’s CEO, Peter Fearnhead, said, “ This reintroduction is the start of a process whereby southern white rhino as the closest genetic alternative can fulfil the role of the northern white rhino in the landscape”. More southern white rhinoceroses are expected to be sent to Garamba National Park in the future.  These, too, are likely to be sourced from South Africa which, despite the heavy poaching there over the last decade, has the largest white rhino population at an estimated 12,968 animals down over 2,000 from 10 years ago as a result of poaching.

Fearnhead lamented the disappearance of the northern white rhino species, describing conservation efforts 20 years ago as ”too little, too late”. Though it is hard to see what could have been done in the late 1990s and early 2000s as Garamba found itself beset by massive poaching for rhino horn and ivory and the victims of conflicts in the DRC, insurgencies which spilled over into the park from neighbouring Sudan (now South Sudan) and incursions into the park by the Ugandan  Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels.  Poachers and armed groups alike poached rhino for their hugely valuable horns, hide and meat.

For the DRC and Garamba, the relocations are a big step forward to restoring white rhino to the core of their former range – albeit a different sub-species. The head of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, Yves Milan Ngangay, described the release of the rhinos and plans for future relocations as, “a testament to our country’s commitment to biodiversity conservation,”.

The sad history of the northern white rhino

There are now no wild northern white rhino, despite persistent reports of their survival in very small numbers in South Sudan. On a closely guarded reserve in the Laikipia region of Kenya, the two surviving northern white rhinoceros are living out their lives with no hope of them breeding, as they are both females. They live under constant protection from poachers in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy. The last male, known as Sudan died on March 19th 2018 at Ol Pejeta, effectively rendering the entire subspecies functionally extinct.

Northern white rhinos were once abundant across savanna and open woodland habitat from southern Sudan, northern Uganda into northern DRC, the Central African Republic and Chad. In the 19th century they were also found further south in the Karagwe region of northern Tanzania and in neighbouring areas of Rwanda. The explorer of the Great Lakes region John Hanning Speke in the early 1860s described Karagwe as being “wild, and very thinly inhabited…the haunts of rhinoceros, both white and black… and as I had never before seen white rhinoceros, killed one now; though, as no one would eat him, I felt sorry rather than otherwise for what I had done.” A decade later Henry Stanley, in his account of his journey in 1874-6 seeking the source of the Nile, wrote that he shot a white rhino in Karagwe to feed his retainers.

Hunting for meat, horn and sport in the late 19th and first six decades of the 20th century reduced numbers from tens of thousands to just a few thousand.  Half-hearted hunting regulations were introduced by the British in Sudan and Uganda, by the Belgians in the Congo and the French in central Africa and Chad, but this did little to stem the steady depletion. As late as 1960, there were still around 2,360 northern white rhinos spread thinly across a shrinking range.  But widespread poaching to feed demand in Yemen, where horn was used for dagger handles,  and in the China and the Far East, where horn was used widely in traditional Chinese medicine steadily reduced numbers.

Civil wars in both the Democratic of Congo and neighbouring Sudan totally obstructed anti-poaching measures, with heavily armed Sudanese armed groups,  militias from the DRC itself and members of the Ugandan LRA entering the park and killing wildlife population. By 1984 only about 15 individuals survived, all of them in Garamba National Park, DRC. An international campaign to save the rhinos had some effect and Congolese wildlife personnel supported by global wildlife NGOs brought a halt to the losses and by 1994 the population had grown to approximately 30 animals and these numbers remained roughly stable until July 2003.

But increased conflict with the DRC and in southern Sudan further obstructed conservation and poaching of elephant and rhino in Garamba poaching pressure increased again.  An aerial survey in 2004 revealed that numbers had dropped to about 17-22 and by 2006 this was down to four and a 2008 survey found no white rhinos at all in Garamba, leading to the conclusion by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that the northern white rhino was extinct in the wild.

South Africa’s white rhino a pool for translocations

 Although South Africa’s rhino have been hit hard by poaching and there are continuing problems with protecting both southern white rhino and black rhino.  Nearly 10,000 black and white rhinos have been poached in South Africa since 2007, and while poaching numbers have dropped in recent years, an unacceptably high proportion of rhinos are still being killed, slowing recovery in areas (like Kruger NP) where poaching has been reduced.

Pressure from poaching and the huge costs of anti-poaching and security measures is now being felt by private rhino owners, who now hold just over half of South Africa’s white rhinos.  It is estimated that private ranchers spend more on security per rhino than South African National Parks nearly Rand30,000 per rhino compared with less than Rand9,000. The high spend on security may have reduced poaching, but it has also reduced the owners feel from having rhino, because of the high cost from owning rhinos. In 2021, 124 rhino were killed on private reserves or ranches, up from 91 in 2020. 

The costs and threats of rhino ownership perhaps explain why South Africa’s largest private rhino owner, John Hume, put his Buffalo Dreams Ranch and his 2,000+ white rhinos up for sale this year – though the auction failed to find a buyer and negotiations are still underway abhout how to protect his rhino. Humne was paying out an estimated £2 million a year to protect his rhinos. And over the past few years increasing numbers of private owners have been selling there rhinos and getting out of the business.

This may have a benefit for countries like Rwanda and now DRC, which are seeking to re-establish (albeit with a different sub-species) white rhinom populations.  African Parks, again, has been involved in relocating white rhino from private owners in South Africa to parks it manages.  In November 2021, sent from South Africa to Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, becoming the largest rhino translocation in history.

Relocation is difficult and may result in deaths in transit or soon after release, due to stress.  But African Parks appear to have been successful in reintroducing black rhino to Malawi’s Liwonde and Majete NPs and white rhinos to Akagera. One must hope that for the future of the white rhinos in Africa that the Garamba relocation is successful and that the availability of white rhino from South Africa’s private owners can be turned from a problem into an opportunity.

Professor Keith Somerville is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (University of London), and a fellow of the Zoological Society of London.  He has written books on the ivory trade, human-lion, human-hyena and human-jackal coexistence and conflict, and is now writing a book for Pelagic Publishers on the African rhino species