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Rwanda welcomes 20 black rhinos to Akagera National Park

  • The 20 black rhinos are of the eastern subspecies (Diceros bicornis michaeli).
  • African Parks, the NGO that manages Akagera National Park in cooperation with the government of Rwanda, says that it has rhino trackers, canine patrols and a helicopter to protect the rhinos from poaching.
  • Fewer than 5,000 black rhinos exist in Africa. Their numbers have been decimated by poaching for their horns, which fetch high prices for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
  • Officials hope that the new rhino population will boost Akagera National Park’s visibility as a ecotourism destination.

Twenty rhinos are moving to a new home in Rwanda from South Africa over the next two weeks.

The reintroduction will bring the eastern black rhinos (Diceros bicornis michaeli), a subspecies of the IUCN-listed Critically Endangered black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), back to the savannas of Akagera National Park in the eastern part of the African country. There are around 1,000 eastern black rhinos left, according to African Parks, most of which live in Kenya.

A female black rhino in East Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

“The rhino’s return to this country … is a testament to Rwanda’s extraordinary commitment to conservation and is another milestone in the restoration of Akagera’s natural diversity,” said Peter Fearnhead, the CEO of the nonprofit organization African Parks, in a statement. African Parks manages 10 parks in cooperation with seven countries on the continent.

Fewer than 4,900 black rhinos of all subspecies are thought to roam Africa’s plains today, according to IUCN data from 2010. That’s only about 10 percent of what numbers were just a few decades ago. Black rhinos, and their Near-Threatened cousin, the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum), have been hit hard by poachers eager to harvest their valuable horns.

Vets shorten the horn of a darted rhino to prevent injury in the translocation. Photo © African Parks

A 2013 study in the journal Science cited information showing that the price per kilogram of rhino horn hit $65,000 ($29,545 per pound) in 2012 – or about 60 percent higher than the current price of gold. Made of keratin, the same compound in our hair and fingernails, rhino horn has a long history of usage in traditional Chinese medicine, and growing Asian economies have been blamed for the surge in prices, and as a result, poaching.

“Rhinos are one of the great symbols of Africa,” Fearnhead said, “yet they are severely threatened and are on the decline in many places across the continent due to the extremely lucrative and illegal rhino horn trade.”

At one time, Akagera supported some 50 black rhinos, but as in many other parts of Africa, their numbers dwindled as poaching increased in subsequent decades. A 2007 sighting marks the last time a rhino was seen in the park.

Heartened by the success of the reintroduction of seven African lions (Panthera leo) to Akagera in 2015, park managers and funders of the relocation saw an opportunity for the park to become a sanctuary for one of the continent’s most beleaguered animals.

“Several years ago, as we were struggling to have success combating rhino poaching in other parts of Africa, I made a commitment to President [Paul] Kagame [of Rwanda] that we would support the reintroduction of rhinos in Rwanda because we knew this country would protect them,” said Howard Buffett, CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, in the African Parks statement. The foundation has provided financial backing for the project, as have the government of the Netherlands and the People’s Postcode Lottery based in the UK, which raises money for causes and charities.

African Parks says that the measures to counter poaching they have introduced since taking over management of the park in 2010 have cut poaching to “an all-time low.” The lion population is now more than twice what it was in 2015. To keep the new tenants of Akagera safe, they have a helicopter, a canine unit and rhino trackers.

With the addition of the rhino, visitors to Akagera National Park now have the chance to see all of Africa’s “big five” game animals, including elephants, pictured here in Akagera in 2014. Photo by John C. Cannon

“We are fully prepared to welcome them and ensure their safety for the benefit of our tourism industry and the community at large,” said Clare Akamanzi, the CEO of the Rwanda Development Board, in the release. The Rwanda Development Board shares the management of Akagera with African Parks.

With the addition of the rhinoceros, the park now offers visitors the chance to see all “big five” game animals, which also include elephants (Loxodonta africana), African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), leopards (Panthera pardus pardus) and lions, in a relatively small area.

Akagera National Park is 1,200 square kilometers (463.3 square miles). By contrast, Serengeti National Park in neighboring Tanzania comprises 14,763 square kilometers (5,700 square miles).

“The return of the rhinos to Rwanda’s Akagera National Park opens a new chapter in our conservation journey,” Akamanzi said, “and we are grateful to all our partners that contributed to this achievement.”

The capture team assists in navigating a tranquilized rhino towards the crate for transport. Photo © African Parks


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