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SOS Rhino : In the News :Restoring Rhinos in the Selous Reserve
 

Restoring Rhinos in the Selous Reserve

  From World Resources Institute
Tuesday, April 13, 2004

For days, Friedrich Alpers hid alone in a tree in the African wilderness waiting to videotape one of the elusive black rhinos he is trying to save.

He quietly munched on nuts and raisins. He held on tightly when elephants used his tree for a scratching post. And the Oxford-educated biologist swallowed his fear when a lion and then a leopard spied him in his hammock.

On the fourth day, Alpers got what he came for. One of the few remaining black rhinos emerged from the brush. Alpers, his hands trembling with nervous delight, captured the first video footage of the critically endangered animal in one of Africa's largest tracts of protected wildlife land.

"He was ever so peaceful, very confident, very sweet in his appearance," said Alpers. "I thought he must be very disappointed with us, the human race. He has survived all the killing and poaching of the past 20 years, lost all his relatives, but still means no harm to us."

It was a pinnacle moment for Alpers, 35, and Tanzania, where saving the rhino is one of the country's most important conservation issues. The East African nation is trying to help the animal recover after poaching nearly decimated the rhino population.

Environmental preservation is a growing priority for a country whose economy is becoming ever more dependent on eco-tourism. Tanzania is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, from the Serengeti and Lake Victoria to its valuable marine life and corals in the Indian Ocean.

Alpers works in the Selous Game Reserve, which is larger than Switzerland. The 45,000 square kilometer reserve holds an estimated 70 percent of Tanzania's remaining rhino population and about 6 percent of all the black rhinos left in the world. The animals used to range across Africa and once numbered more than 60,000. Today, there are less than 4,000 left in just 10 countries on the continent, and less than 100 in the Selous.

The animals have been poached for their valuable horns, which are used in some traditional Chinese medicines and for dagger handles in Yemen, as a status symbol for young men. The horns, which are made of compressed hair, make for a lucrative black market business.

Biologists are hoping to reverse the rhino's decline in the Selous by increasing the frequency of the animals' breeding. Right now, there are so few rhinos in the Selous that sometimes males and females don't cross paths. Alpers hopes that his research about the animals' travel habits will determine how to get them to breed more easily. Airlifting males and females to locate them closer together isn't out of the question.

But in the Selous, with so few rhinos in such a vast area, finding the animals in order to study their habits is a major hurdle. And because of the rhinos' fear of poachers, they have learned to survive in the deepest gorges and thickets. Alpers and reserve rangers have backpacked through miles of the reserve for weeks at a time, yet in three years of work at the Selous, Alpers has spotted only nine rhinos.

Tracking them by following their footprints doesn't work well because many other major animals, from elephants to hippos, use the same game trails and the rhino tracks get covered up. "It's like a highway," Alpers explained.

So to get some information about the animals, Alpers has turned to a more high-tech solution -- DNA sampling. Alpers and his assistants are now searching for piles of rhino dung to analyze its genetic components. "Many people are not excited by rhino dung, but I'm extremely excited about it," Alpers said. If they find fresh dung before insects devour it -- and if the rhinos haven't eaten a particular plant that ruins the dung for DNA testing -- Alpers and his workers can use the genetic information to chart rhino family trees. They'll also be able to recognize individual rhinos and track their travels and activities through the dung piles.

This is the first time the tactic, already used to track wolves in North America, has been tested on wild rhino. Alpers' research may prove crucial to boosting populations of the rhino in the Selous, but it may also help rhino-saving efforts in other parts of Tanzania and Africa.

But if the rhino population increases, so will the need for anti-poaching efforts. Alpers believes the need for patrols and better equipment will increase with any success of his breeding program. But funding such efforts in one of the poorest countries in the world can be a difficult task. Alpers gets some support from the European Union but also has to rely on donations.

"It's a global resource and it's up to us to make sure they stay," Alpers said. "Our forefathers have left us in a bad situation environmentally. We are the generation to make good of what we have. It's our last chance." (WRI Features)

By Debbie Salamone of the Orlando Sentinel, who contributed this article to WRI Features (features@wri.org)