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SOS Rhino : In the News : Black rhino released on to Zululand Rhino reserve

Black rhino released on to Zululand Rhino reserve

  Updated: 10/18/05

Courtesy of South Africa Good News

"Saving endangered spaces for endangered species" is the motto of the 24 000 hectare Zululand Rhino Reserve (ZRR) which opened officially this weekend at a glittering function in the bush. The reserve is made up of more than 20 neighbouring properties whose owners have recently removed their internal fences in order to create a significant, barrier-free haven for endangered species ranging from black rhino to leopard tortoises - groups of both of which were released on to the reserve over the weekend.

The black rhino - 10 females and 11 males - form the second founder population of the WWF/ Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Black Rhino Range Expansion Project which aims to boost numbers of the critically endangered species by increasing the land available for their conservation, thus reducing pressure on existing reserves and providing new territory in which they can breed quickly.

"In just two years through this project, the black rhino has acted as a catalyst in creating about 40 000 hectares of barrier-free land for conservation," says WWF project leader Dr Jacques Flamand.

"Much of the land was already under conservation but in relatively small pieces divided by internal fences, which is not ecologically optimal. The courageous decisions of landowners who have committed themselves to creating these large areas have enormously benefited black rhino and many other species that live alongside them."

It also helps boost the economy in the region by providing much-needed jobs, explains Clive Vivier, ZRR chairman and owner of Leopard Mountain, one of the properties on the reserve. "The area has some of the poorest communities in the country, but we also have fantastic biodiversity and natural beauty. Access to jobs and skills training in the tourism industry can change people's lives."

The Black Rhino Range Expansion Project has also begun to work with community landholders within the historic range of the black rhino. "Sustainable involvement of local communities is important for the future of conservation and we're currently in negotiations with community groups who could become future project partners," says Dr Flamand.

Initially, the focus of the project is on finding suitable sites within KwaZulu-Natal, but once these have been saturated, the Project will look further afield.

Black rhino, which used to be the most numerous rhino species in the world, became critically endangered following a catastrophic poaching wave in the 1970s and 1980s which wiped out 96% of Africa's wild black rhino population in just 20 years. At the lowest point, there were just 2500 black rhino left. There are now around 3600.

The release of leopard tortoises is part of a multidisciplinary programme to boost declining numbers of the tortoises in the wild. The animals have been living at CROW, the Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife, in Durban. Some of the tortoises that end up at CROW have been bought by people who want to rescue them from illegal traders. Others have been unwisely intended as pets.

"People see them at the side of the road and pick them to take home. It's not allowed. If you see one on the road, pick it up and take it in the direction it's going. Put it in the veld as far as you can off the road," says Dr Adrian Armstrong, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife animal ecologist.

All indigenous tortoises are protected and therefore a permit is required to keep or sell them. To qualify for a permit the property has to fulfil certain criteria including size and food availability.

Leopard tortoises can weigh up to 50 kilogrammes and have shells 75cm long and 30 cm high. All of the tortoises being released are of the Babcock's subspecies which is native to the eastern side of the continent.

This is the second release of leopard tortoises on to Zululand Rhino Reserve. Earlier this year 22 were released. So far the reintroduction has been a success, with only two known mortalities and one disappearance, says Dr Armstrong.

"Normally if you have mortality it's highest during the first few months, so if they survive those, then things are looking good. If after a year they're still happy as Larry and we start seeing young tortoises, then we'll know the reintroduction has been very successful." Some of the tortoises were fitted with radiotransmitters to help with monitoring.

At CROW, the tortoises have been given thorough examinations by Dr Angelo Lambiris and Dr Magdalena Lukasik-Braum to make sure they were fit for release and wouldn't pass disease on to the wild population. They have also been acclimatised to indigenous wild food.

"Often when tortoises are kept as pets they just get fed dog food. It's not a proper diet. At CROW they try to wean them on to indigenous plants with a varied diet of leaves, fruit and vegetables. When they have been released, you don't want them to hang around the lodges waiting to be fed by people. Some tortoises are so accustomed to being fed by hand that you can't reintroduce them into the wild. They lose their instinct to forage."

The University of KwaZulu-Natal's School for Biological and Conservation Sciences will be conducting research on the released population.

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