Africa’s Conservation Miracle: The Return of the Rhinos


Habitat destruction. That’s almost always the answer to a question of wildlife conservation. Why has this species declined? Why has that species gone extinct? Because the place where it lives is being or has been destroyed.

The ever-increasing demands of the human population in India mean that there is less  room for tigers. A vast suite of creatures – many unknown to science – go under every day with the continuing destruction of the rainforest. Migrating birds find their journey impossible when their rest-and-feed-up stopovers are destroyed. The baiji – Yangtze river dolphin – went extinct this century because of the pollution and traffic of its home river system.

It all comes back to one problem: that of the ever-expanding human population and its ever-increasing demands. But fly over the Luangwa Valley in Zambia and you see an endless expanse of glorious uncluttered savannah. It’s still wild as hell. Here is a habitat in the best possible shape, a place where conservation can for a moment set aside concerns about the loss of wild places.

If you take a walk anywhere in the two great national parks that dominate the valley – though you’d be well-advised to bring an armed scout – you will find yourself in perfect black rhino habitat. It’s mostly the kind of wooded savannah black rhinos love, studded with bushes, plenty of browse. Plenty, too, of Kigelia or sausage-trees: drooping with enormous elongated white fruit, so that each tree looks like an Italian delicatessen. Rhinos gourmandise on the fallen sausage-fruit, and scatter the seeds in their dung.

Forty years ago, Zambia had the third largest black rhino population in Africa: around 12,000, with 4,000 of them in the Luangwa Valley. Twenty years later there were none. They were declared extinct in Zambia in 1998. They had been poached out of existence in the 1970s and 1980s to meet illegal commercial markets. The Yemeni wanted the horns for dagger-handles, and the Chinese medicine trade has an immense and expanding appetite for them. Rhino horn is believed to help relieve fevers and disorders of the blood; it’s not used as an aphrodisiac, though the myth dies hard in the West.

There are five living rhino species: in Asia the Javan, Sumatran and Indian, in Africa the white and the black rhinoceros. (Both species are actually grey, and tend to be the colour of the country they live in, from their habit of ecstatic rolling and dust-bathing.) Tests in Switzerland found that rhino horn has no effect whatsoever on a mammalian body, good or bad, though an experiment by Chinese scientists demonstrated that immense doses had a very small effect at reducing fever in mice.

But it’s not about what rhino horn does, it’s about what people believe it does. And in the 1970s and 1980s the price it fetched was more than enough to establish an effective poaching industry in Zambia. It worked well until they ran out of rhinos. That left behind a still-perfect ecosystem lacking one of its most significant species. The North Luangwa National Park and the South Luangwa National Park are both jumping with elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and most of the sexy species of African megafauna. The Luangwa River has the highest density of hippos in the world and one of the highest concentrations of Nile crocodiles.

It’s a thriving place. The south park has a well-established tourist industry, one that tends to be well-run, with high ethical standards. The north park is different – no permanent camps, hardly any roads. The tourist industry there is scanty, expensive and adventurous. And there are black rhinos there.

If your prime target in conservation is birds, you have a much easier time of it. You just get the habitat right and wait for them to fly in. So how long do you have to wait for a flight of rhinos?

The answer is five years. They came in not under their own power, but by Hercules aircraft. Five of them landed in North Luangwa National Park in 2003, five years after the declared national extinction, rather longer since the last rhino was killed for its horn in Zambia.

The North Luangwa Conservation Programme (NLCP) had taken four years of preparation to set up, but now the great adventure was on, a glorious attempt to put the toothpaste back in the tube. It was established by Frankfurt Zoological Society, and it receives funding from organisations that include Save the Rhino, which is based in London. Ten more rhinos came to North Luangwa in 2006, five more in 2008, and another five two years later. That meant that by 2011, there were 25 rhinos in a well-watched and well-guarded area of 220 square kilometres. They were kept in protected circumstances, initially in a boma, or timber-walled enclosure.

Now the population is free-ranging, protected by the vigilance of people on the ground. Circumstances are not entirely natural – at least not yet – and the project will supply lucerne and sausage-fruit to animals in sub-optimal condition and to lactating females.

It’s not been straightforward. It never is. The process makes considerable demands on the animals involved. They’re not machines: the flight is difficult and the instant change of environment is traumatic. Such things can be hard for domestic animals, as horse-people will tell you. For wild animals, not selectively bred for docility, there will always be problems.

Some rhinos found it harder to make the change than others. Others possibly contracted trypanosomiasis, from the tsetse flies that favour the Valley and so make it a no-go area for cattle farmers – which is the reason the habitat has remained in such good shape for so long. Others died in fights. And in the traumatic year of 2011, six of the rhinos died: more than 15% of the population. “It was one of the hottest and driest years on record,” says Claire Lewis, technical adviser for the NLCP. “All wild animals suffer under such extreme conditions. It was hugely disappointing, but we had to be pragmatic about it.”

That is the problem with all small populations: there is no such thing as a small disaster. The project is still a fragile thing: it wouldn’t take much to lose the lot, at the cost of a good deal of money and great deal more hope. A mother of a three-month-old calf was found dead and the calf never seen again. Such things are hard to deal with for the people on the ground.

There was easy consolation to be found: six more calves were born. There is now a population of 34 black rhinos in North Luangwa National Park, and it’s time to think about expanding.At the time of writing, and in the entire history of the project, not a single rhino has been lost to poaching. This is a kind of miracle: and it comes from hard work, high motivation and considerable skills. The rhino trade has gone through the roof. Demand has escalated – and with it, the criminal trade.

In 2007 South Africa lost 13 rhinos to poachers; in 2014 the number was 1,215. It’s clear that the business is out of control. One of the reasons for the desperate level of demand is the entry of a new player: Vietnam. With new prosperity, the Vietnamese have taken to all kinds of prestigious items with immense enthusiasm – and that includes rhino horn. The product is seen has a cure-all. It’s used to treat cancer; it’s also used by the über-wealthy as a cure for hangovers.

The trade is much easier than it was 30-40 years ago, as the supply lines are infinitely shorter. There is a strong Chinese presence in much of sub-Saharan Africa these days, including Zambia. It’s a fair assumption that some of these are involved in illegal trading. So it seems that the North Luangwa rhino population is approaching critical mass just as the rhino-horn trade is more demanding than ever. It’s an illegal trade that’s right up there with gold and cocaine.


The NLCP works with local wildlife authorities to protect translocated rhinos at the North Luangwa Park. NLCP

The NLCP has no option but to work on the prevention of poaching – 250 anti-poaching officers make 60 four-man 10-day patrols every month. The boots-on-the-ground policy makes sure the rhinos aren’t easy targets. Their work is backed up by regular flights, surveying both rhinos and intruders. In recent years, there has been much greater emphasis on intelligence-led operations. “We have to be very careful about showing our hand here,” Lewis says. “But we have invested more and more in the Intelligence and Investigations Unit run by ZAWA (Zambia Wildlife Authority) and they’ve had some success. We see this as our priority until the international cartels are broken down.” The price of living rhinos is eternal vigilance.

The next stage is the beginning of the abnegation of control. A population of 70 to 80 rhinos within a few years is feasible if the vigilance keeps on paying off. Patrolling will become less intensive – the rhinos would be using a much greater area and there isn’t the funding to put more people on the ground.

There is talk about reintroducing rhinos elsewhere in Zambia: the South Luangwa National Park, and on the other side of the country, in the Kafue National Park, though Ed Sayer, the chief technical adviser at NLCP, says: “If we can get through this period of severe threat, then those areas need to start setting up the necessary security now. It took us four years at a time when rhino poaching was much less intense.”

This is an extraordinary project. It’s much harder than flying in the face of nature, it’s flying in the face of human greed. But so far it’s working. It’s a miracle of hard work and good planning and the sort of dedication that, in an earlier age, would lead to canonisation. There have been rhinos back in the Luangwa Valley, rhinos back in Zambia for 12 years. And they’re still there. At the time of writing, anyway.