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The conservation efforts and translocation strategy employed by the conservation organisation Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife over the past 40 years to save black rhinoceros in South Africa from extinction, has received a big thumbs up from zoologists at Stellenbosch University (South Africa). This is at least some good news for the species that yet again faces severe threats from poachers.
A Stellenbosch University genetic survey of black rhinos on provincial nature reserves and participating private and communal nature reserves and game ranches in Kwa-Zulu Natal, found no noteworthy levels of inbreeding within populations, even though most of the animals descend from only two small original populations.
This means that thanks to well managed translocation policies, the critically endangered South African black rhino populations in KwaZulu-Natal is genetically healthy. This bodes well for its reproductive capabilities and continued survival.
The findings of the population genetics study were published in the leading conservation journal Animal Conservation, which is a publication of the London Zoological Society. The study was conducted by Ms Minette Karsten, a master's degree student in Zoology at Stellenbosch University, her supervisors Prof Bettine Jansen van Vuuren and Dr Adeline Barnaud of the Evolutionary Genomics Group in the SU Department of Botany and Zoology and Dr Peter Goodman of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.
This is the first study to date to directly assess the genetic impact of management actions such as the active translocation of animals since 1973 on South Africa’s black rhino populations.
“Our findings pay tribute to the well managed and well documented efforts of the KZN conservation officials who, over the past forty years, have had the survival of South Africa’s black rhino populations at heart,” says Ms Karsten.
“Our aim was to provide scientific information that can support the management and on-going monitoring of this rare species,” she says. “We hope this will, along with other ecological data, assist any future decisions about translocation of rhino between reserves in South African and between various countries.”
Rescue measures to ensure the long-term survival of populations were put in place after rhinoceros became critically endangered throughout Africa by the 1980s because of high levels of poaching and habitat loss.
In the early 1970’s a focused recovery strategy for the South African black rhino was launched to increase the population size as rapidly as possible to save the species from extinction. The Natal Parks Board, which was the provincial conservation organisation at this time, started to capture small numbers of black rhino from the Hluhluwe, iMfolozi and Mkhuze Game Reserves and translocate them to other areas in KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa with suitable habitat for rhinoceros.
The strategy has been successful in raising black rhino population numbers from 110 to approximately 2000 in South Africa. This makes South Africa one of the most important havens for the remaining 5000 black rhino on the continent. At the time of the study, black rhino in South Africa were distributed across 16 state and 25 private-protected areas in five of the country’s nine provinces.
Most of these animals descend from the two small original populations at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and Mkhuze Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. A few animals from Zimbabwe were also translocated to the Kruger National Park at the time.
“These efforts have been well documented from the start, which has ensured that the on-going routine translocation and movement of animals have been very well managed and not done on an ad hoc basis,” says evolutionary genomics expert Prof Bettine Jansen van Vuuren of Stellenbosch University’s Department of Botany and Zoology.
According to Prof Jansen van Vuuren, the treat of inbreeding is that population reproduction declines which, in turn, causes decreases in population numbers. If this problem becomes significant, it may even lead to extinction.
As part of their study, the Stellenbosch University researchers checked levels of inbreeding and genetic diversity from 77 individual Diceros bicornis minor animals in KZN by using microsatellite markers to survey genetic diversity.
“The lack of significant genetic structure across populations in KZN means that individuals can be freely moved among reserves and protected areas, and that new populations can be established with excess individuals from a mixture of protected areas,” Ms Karsten explains the significance of the results.
KwaZulu-Natal arguable remains the most significant area for the conservation of black rhino in South Africa.
“The role of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is crucial in increasing black rhino populations, and therefore we are grateful to know that our strategy thus far has been shown to be scientifically sound,” says Dr Peter Goodman, Coordinator of Biodiversity Research in Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Biodiversity Research Division.
* This press release is based on the article “The history and management of black rhino in KwaZulu-Natal: a population genetic approach to assess the past and guide the future” in the scientific journal Animal Conservation, a publication of the London Zoological Society.
Prof Bettine Jansen van Vuuren
Member of the Evolutionary Genomics Research Group in the Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University
(021) 808 4862
Ms Minette Karsten
Postgraduate student in zoology in the Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
(021) 808 3229
Dr Peter Goodman
Coordinator of Biodiversity Research at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, South Africa
+27 33 845 1423
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