Rhinos in Zimbabwe
Published: Aug 2, 2016For almost twenty years Paignton Zoo and the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust have provided financial and human support to a small conservation charity based near Bulawayo in western Zimbabwe, the Dambari Wildlife Trust.
Most of the Dambari Wildlife Trust’s (DWT) work is centred on the breathtakingly beautiful Matobo Hills National Park, a World Heritage Site. The Park still holds small populations of both black rhinos and white rhinos, the last ones surviving in the west of the country, despite the widely-publicised poaching onslaught that has decimated populations of rhinos in most areas of Africa. DWT carries out camera-trapping in the park and this has proved a great way of monitoring the rhino populations - and also of finding out what other species occur in the park (and there are many).
In the cool season (May to September) each year all the rhinos in the National Park are captured, their horns are removed (as a disincentive to poachers), and they are uniquely marked by a system of ear-notching. We know all the individuals and the camera traps help us monitor what they are doing, where they are going and how they are interacting with each other.
This intimate knowledge of the rhinos makes it doubly hard when, maddeningly, occasional acts of poaching still take place in and around the Park; in each of the last three years we have lost one or two rhinos to poachers. It also makes it heartening when, as happened in April this year, a brand new calf is detected. We know who the mother is and have a pretty good idea of who the dad is, too.
Despite the fact that black rhinos and white rhinos look similar to the untrained eye they are, in fact, very different animals with different behaviours, ecology and habitat requirements. Black rhinos are very secretive, solitary, and live in the densest thickets deep in the hills. In sixteen years of visiting the Park I have never seen one there! White rhinos, on the other hand, are more like big cows. They graze in small groups out in the open and are easily seen, to the delight of tourists. This, of course, also makes them much easier to hunt, so all the recent poaching has been of white rhinos. The situation seems to be exacerbated by changes in the ecology of the park; the best grazing now appears to be away from the strictly-protected and fenced Whovi section in the west. Rhinos are now much more commonly seen in the so-called ‘recreational’ areas, which makes them more visible and hence more vulnerable to opportunistic attacks.
Why the ecology of the park is changing is not clear and is being investigated by DWT staff in partnership with researchers from the University of Southampton, arranged through our partners at Marwell Zoo, in Hampshire, who have also provided support to DWT for many years. It may be that climate change in the form of changed rainfall patterns is leading to a change in the vegetation in the Whovi sector (less grass, more bush). Or it may be that the loss of large grazing animals due to poaching has allowed bush to take over areas that were formerly grassed. Alternatively, it may be that shifting fire regimes, again possibly due to climate change, are part of the problem. We don’t know for sure but there is no point in using guesswork or intuition to develop our conservation strategies for the future. We need evidence (that is, data), and we need it now, hence the focus of the work.
Given the background of continuing economic turmoil in Zimbabwe, it is hard to be optimistic about the future for rhinos; but the Trust, and its amazing staff, are hanging in there in the full knowledge that if good people stand by and do nothing then evil will triumph. And that is not allowed.
Simon Tonge - Executive Director, Paignton Zoo Environmental Park.