“R” is for Rhinos … and also for Reserves
The idea of raising rhinos on private reserves is certainly not new and has, in fact, contributed significantly to the remarkable recovery of the southern white rhinoceros during the 20th century. Having been reduced to a remnant population of fewer than one hundred animals in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve in the 1890s, white rhinos numbers have swelled to more than 20,000 animals spread across nine countries—South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia, and Mozambique. The overwhelming bulk—more than 90%—of the these populations are found in the Republic of South Africa, where approximately one-quarter of the country’s white rhinos are maintained on private lands. Private landowners in South Africa hold about 20% of the nation’s black rhinos as well.
Rhinos raised on private reserves have been used to repopulate protected areas, to bolster nature tourism, and for trophy hunting programs that help generate support for wildlife conservation. In China, rhinos are reportedly being ranched to produce horn for medicinal purposes. Currently, a controversy is brewing as to whether the international trade in rhino horn should be legalized, which some private holders favor as a way of managing what they consider to be a renewable resource, meeting the demand that currently exists in countries like China and Vietnam, and ultimately reducing rhino poaching by bringing down the price of illegally obtained and trafficked horn. Opponents to legalization favor increased protection and de-horning as anti-poaching counter measures. This issue is hotly debated and under review by parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Most of the major NGOs, including IRF, do not support legalizing trade in rhino horn.
International policies and politics aside, among the five rhino species, the white rhino is the best candidate for breeding under managed conditions. White rhinos are generally more tractable than black rhinos, as well as more easily maintained as herds at higher densities than their somewhat smaller and more irritable cousins. Private holding of rhinos is largely an African phenomenon. Asian rhinos are found only in national parks such as the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary and Kaziranga National Park in India, and Way Kambas and Bukit Barisan Selatan National Parks in Indonesia.
Managing rhino populations in special captive breeding programs is a major undertaking. Large areas of suitable habitat – at least 10,000 to 15,000 acres – must be secured. Compatibility with other farming or agricultural activities must be considered, as well as interactions with other wildlife. For example, adult rhinos may engage in aggressive encounters with elephants or hippos, and calves may fall victim to predators such as lions, hyenas or crocodiles. Protection from poachers is critical, especially given the recent spike in the illegal rhino horn trade, and ranchers must make serious investments in this aspect of their operations. Some have taken to dehorning their rhinos to deter poachers, while a few have even injected their animals’ horns with chemicals that render them toxic to consumers.
Rhino breeding for conservation is not limited to range countries. In the United States, for example, both white and black rhinos are maintained at a number of special facilities as insurance populations, and perhaps as eventual stock for reintroduction programs.