Rewilding has become something of a buzzword in recent years and for good reason. Reintroducing species into habitats they have been lost from is proven to help restore ecosystems, and brings with it a whole host of benefits from flood management to carbon capture. Now, potentially the world's most ambitious rewilding plan has been hatched.
John Hume’s controversial rhino breeding farm, Platinum Rhino, in South Africa, went up for sale in April 2023. Originally purchased by Hume under the idea that the sale of rhino horn would become legal, Platinum Rhino and its approximately 2,000 southern white rhino residents came onto the market when this change to the law did not happen. Initially, the property received no bids, however, an agreement was reached with African Parks, a non-profit conservation organization that manages protected areas across Africa.
“While the core of African Parks’ work is to effectively manage protected areas across Africa, creating safe and wild ecosystems that benefit people and wildlife, the organization has a proven track record in carrying out large and complex wildlife translocations and reintroductions. We realized that a conservation solution had to be found, and that we had a moral imperative to step in, given our unique position," Donovan Jooste, Rhino Rewilding Project Manager at African Parks told IFLScience.
Platinum Rhino and its inhabitants are now the property of African Parks and the plan is to rewild them all in the next 10 years. These rhinos are thought to represent up to 15 percent of the world’s remaining southern white rhino population, which is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List, the lowest extinction risk for the world's five rhino species. The northern white rhino is functionally extinct with just two females left in the world.
With the purchase complete, African Parks has a tremendous job on its hands, so just how do you go about rewilding 2,000 rhinos? Fortunately, the team isn’t new to this process and while the 2,000 rhino project is on a grander scale than their previous plans, they do have experience transporting large animals across Africa.
“African Parks has conducted many translocations and reintroductions over the years – successfully moving over 8,000 animals from over 14 species to help repopulate parks and re-establish populations. African Parks’ efforts have resulted in bringing rhino back to Malawi, Rwanda, and the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo]. They have brought lions, cheetahs, leopards, and wild dogs back to Malawi, where they also moved 500 elephants,” continued Jooste.
This might be the largest continent-wide rewilding program ever to be undertaken and the logistics of the operation cannot be understated. The team plans to develop a framework in collaboration with independent rhino experts, and conduct feasibility studies to assess where and when the rhinos can be moved.
There are also plans to set up an advisory body that will work with stakeholders to guide this project. African Parks is ambitious, though: the aim is to rewild an average of 300 rhinos a year, with the first relocation taking place as early as the end of 2023 or early 2024. African Parks plan to turn the site into a sanctuary, phasing out the breeding program and moving the rhinos to protected areas.
Where rhino are present within an ecosystem, there is an increase in fauna and flora diversity. In this regard, rhino are a keystone species.
There are still many challenges to be faced, not least keeping the rhinos safe once they arrive at their new homes. Poaching is the main threat facing these animals. According to Save The Rhino International, a rhino is poached every 20 hours in South Africa alone, so ensuring that these 2,000 individuals are protected once they’ve been relocated is a top priority for the team.
Southern white rhinos were nearly lost to extinction: only 30-40 animals remained in the 1930s, but conservation measures boosted these numbers to around 20,000. However, poaching has claimed more than 50 percent of the global population in the last 10 years.
“Potential recipient areas that are managed by governments, communities, or other conservation organizations will also be subject to prior assessments to ensure acceptable security is in place for the rhino. Ensuring safe protected areas for these animals is the key element that will make this project successful,” said Jooste.
On a more positive note, rewilding projects have seen success because they restore lost species to the environment, creating enormous knock-on benefits for the rest of the ecosystem. In the Caribbean, the uninhabited island of Redonda has seen an increase of 2,000 percent in the total vegetation biomass of the island since a rewilding plan was launched in 2017. This is largely due to the removal of invasive species from the island. The African Parks project, meanwhile, will seek to return the rhinos to habitats they have been lost from.
“Where rhino are present within an ecosystem, there is an increase in fauna and flora diversity. In this regard, rhino are a keystone species – they have a disproportionate impact on their environment and influence many other species. Returning rhino to a protected area signals successful conservation across a large landscape that is well managed for the benefit of all species in that ecosystem” said Jooste.
“They contribute to storing carbon by maintaining the savanna ecosystem which is a major carbon sink – savannas store about 30 percent of the world’s terrestrial carbon, mostly in the soil.”
We have years of hard work ahead of us [...] all while continuing our core work of creating safe wild spaces across Africa.
As well as the 22 areas that African Parks manages across 12 countries in Africa, the team say they have already received expressions of interest from Namibia, Zambia, and Kenya, as well as governments and other conservation organizations that are hoping to receive either founder or supplementary groups of rhinos to their respective areas.
African Parks secured emergency funding to purchase the Platinum Rhino property and now expects costs of around $1,500 per rhino for those moving within South Africa. For those traveling overland in other regions in southern Africa, an estimated cost somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 is expected. It is even thought that those rhinos traveling the furthest away from South Africa will rack up expenses of around $50,000 per rhino. To fund such an ambitious and long-term project, a fundraising campaign is due to be set up.
While this project is undoubtedly difficult and has many challenges, such as the risk of the animals not surviving the relocation process, every care will be taken to ensure the success of these relocations and the safety and welfare of the rhinos.
"To ensure the wellbeing of the rhino, every precaution is taken throughout the translocation process and follows thorough planning by highly experienced veterinary, translocation practitioners, and park management teams, in line with International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) guidelines. However, a notable risk remains that animals might struggle to adapt, and a number of losses are expected despite best efforts to mitigate this," Jooste said.
The team believe that the risk to the species of not rewilding these animals far outweighs the risks of the relocations.
"We have years of hard work ahead of us, including maintaining the highest level of security for the sanctuary, carrying out translocations over the coming years, and facing known and unknown challenges, all while continuing our core work of creating safe wild spaces across Africa," finished Jooste.