Peter Hamming – Researcher – Research and Development Department

The management of a reserve’s biodiversity has always been a challenge. Drought, snare poaching, game counts, biodiversity, alien species control, controlled burns etc. all form part of these challenges. Unfortunately, some poaching has become commercial as a lot of money is to be made from the illegal trade in wildlife. Rhino horn being one of the commodities. The management of these animals has become more intense to ensure their future existence.

Different tools and strategies are being used to manage these gracious giants and all the challenges that come with protecting them, but their effectiveness varies. This is where the Southern African Wildlife College’s Research and Development department comes in. In addressing best practice, the department works closely with various parties to ensure that success and failures of management strategies are documented. In addition, new technologies are tested and reported on.

As researchers, we are looking at practical and efficient methods to ensure the protection of our wildlife. Change is however needed. Without funding and sponsorships, vital services such as air support, canine support, ground crews, vets, managers and rangers to protect our wildlife cannot operate. This is not sustainable.  Without a holistic approach, including community engagement, involvement and benefaction, Africa’s precious rhino and other targeted species will remain under threat.

To mitigate losses, management strategies commonly used are markings in the ears, ankle bracelets, and pet ID chips to identify and monitor individuals. To manage their rhino populations, protected area managers can however use different strategies to identify and protect wildlife. Often better solutions are found through trial and error, supported by scientific studies to determine best practice. The use of ankle bracelets and ear notching was one such solution but the effectiveness was questioned and an effort was made to look for alternative options. As such, the SAWC started testing ear tags with telemetry as an alternative to ankle bracelets. They also looked into the effectiveness of notching.

Research on ear notching highlighted that it is less effective in large connected conservation areas such as the Greater Kruger National Park as there are too many animals, leading to duplication of numbers and damage to ears making it near impossible to identify the individual. Rangers and guides that assisted with the project also battled to accurately identify individuals using the ear notches as animals ran when approached or only one ear was visible.

The tags worked well for monitoring individual rhinos from the air but some rhino contracted complications. Challenges were documented and a new strategy was taken based on science and meticulous note taking. Using this data, the cattle ear tags that were use were modified and the strategy to applying the tags was changed. Essentially, the hole needed to be pre-cut as the rhino ear is much thicker than those of cattle. At first tags were put directly into the hole after it was cut. Today the holes are still pre-cut but before attaching the telemetry tag, time is given for the ear to heal. Once the animals are then found again, the tag is attached to the pre created hole with minimum stress to the animal. When inserting or changing a tracking device, the animal needs to be darted and sedated. This in turn allows, the team the opportunity to takes measurements and photos. If reinsertion or replacement of the tag is required, the team is also able to assess the health of the animal or its ears for any further complications.

The information from the tags helps managers and rangers position tier rangers to ensure the best use of resources to protect these assets. Once a new animal is darted it also receives a chip for identification. Blood and DNA is then taken for the RHoDIS project; a rhino DNA Index System managed by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory of the University of Pretoria. The RHoDIS Index System supports rhino management and assists in combatting rhino poaching. This process is in turn overseen by government to ensure all actions taken stay within current national legislation.

Tagging, locating and monitoring of rhinos is however not enough when it comes to protecting this species.  The price on their horns is too high, increasing the risk of rangers on the ground facing heavily armed poachers. The Covid-19 pandemic has also not helped as there are now more people motivated to poach to get money to support their families. A new strategy or solution was thus needed, with dehorning being another tool in the manager’s toolbox to minimize the risk.