I wish to comment on the predicament in which the black rhino finds itself in South Africa today. The black rhino also faces extinction but not so much from poachers as from bad management practices by the SANParks staff in Kruger National Park; and by the Natal Parks Board people in Kwa-Zulu-Natal. Few people understand the ecological circumstances of the black rhino and the powers-that-be have put their noses in the air and they walked away whenever I have tried to advise them about the species. The MAIN danger that the black rhino finds itself in, therefore, is as a consequence of the authorities’ total lack of understanding about the species’ ecological affairs – if they really care at all! And this applies to the situation both in Kruger National Park AND in the protected areas of KwaZulu Natal.
The black rhino – unlike the white rhino – is a solitary and a nocturnal animal. How many people know those two important facts? Classically, the black rhino roams about and feeds all night long and (in healthy populations living in healthy habitats) individual black rhinos go to sleep during the day in thicket cover. During the hours of 9 a.m. (or before) and 3 p.m. (or after) they are sound asleep. During the hours of daylight they are normally only seen by tourists in the early mornings and late afternoons. They CAN live in open country with light woody vegetation but THEN only in very small numbers. In normal healthy populations living in healthy habitats , black rhino population densities are directly linked to the degree of thick cover available to them in their habitats. So THAT is the first important link between black rhinos and thicket cover.
Black rhinos, during the dry season, normally live no more than 5 kilometres from permanent water. Except that mother black rhinos with tiny babies at foot become wanderers for at least the first six months of their babies’ lives. And during that ‘weaning’ period (for want of a better name) the cows visit different waterholes on different nights but only after they have hidden their babies away (ALONE) in thick bush – up to two kilometres distant from the water. In other words mother black rhinos with small babies don’t take them down to the water with them. When they go to drink they visit the waterholes alone. Why? Because it is at the waterholes where the predators lurk! And, after they have drunk their fill, the mother black rhinos return to where they have hidden their babies. They then reunite with their babies, and they start their nocturnal wanderings again.
And baby rhinos are tiny. They are easy meat for a pack of hyenas!
Spotted hyenas are the black rhino’s most dangerous predators. And, when a pack of hyenas find a mother black rhino with a tiny calf at foot they get into the mode of “relentless pursuit” until they have caught and killed the baby. ONE hyena, alone, is enough to eliminate a tiny black rhino calf. Two or more hyenas in a pack will most certainly take-out the calf in a single night. And, solitary mothers – and remember ALL black rhino mothers are solitary individuals – have great difficulty protecting their calves from these voracious predators especially when they are hunting in a pack. This is why in game reserves where spotted hyenas are present, it is not a good idea to dehorn female black rhinos (ostensibly to protect them from poachers). Black rhino cows that have been dehorned CANNOT defend their babies against hyena attack.
I would go so far as to suggest that in game reserves that are designed to “preserve” black rhinos that spotted hyena populations should be drastically reduced in number; or even eliminated altogether. In other words, game reserve managers should be able to choose their priority considerations.
Within this total scenario excessive elephant populations are a major source of danger to black rhinos, too – because they reduce habitats-comprising-thick-cover to bare open veld. The excessive numbers of elephants in Kruger National Park, for example (now reported to be 34 000 – ref Dr Salomon Joubert) when the game reserve’s elephant carrying capacity is just a fraction of that number. The sustainable elephant carrying capacity of KNP was only circa.3500 in the 1950s when habitats were still healthy – (i.e. prior to 1960) (ref. Ron Thomson). Since then the ever growing number of elephants have reduced the woodland habitats in Kruger National Parks by “more than” 95 percent (ref. SANParks). Vast areas of heavy woody cover (thickets etc), therefore, have been reduced to open habitat. This must have, and will continue, to cause DRASTIC reduction in black rhino population densities. The consequent elimination of the thicket cover that black rhino cows need to hide their calves at night (when the mother rhinos go down to the waterholes to drink) will ALSO ensure continuing black rhino calf mortality – due entirely to hyena attack. And this state of affairs is being duplicated in the Umfolosi-Hluhluwe game reserve complex in Kwa-Zulu-Natal too.
And we can’t blame this state of affairs on poaching.
The blame lies squarely at the feet of our government wildlife management authorities! And the public should call on them to answer for this crime against our wildlife heritage. It is about time, too, that government forces these wildlife authorities to reduce their elephant population numbers to their sustainable carrying capacity levels. The maintenance of massively excess elephant populations in all our major wildlife sanctuaries are part and parcel of this VERY BAD wildlife management scenario.
The public cannot sit back any longer and do nothing! If we do, we will be equally culpable.
Ron Thomson. CEO – TGA
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