TCS Daily


Out In The Bush: Landowners Save The Black Rhino

By Michael De Alessi - April 9, 2001 12:00 AM

The black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) prefers roaming the thickets and savannahs of Africa to its high-canopy forests. A browser, the rhino feeds mostly on young twigs, leaves, and shoots. But this 1,400 kilo herbivore can, as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says, become "hostile when disturbed," throwing its weight into sudden and frightening charges out of the bush.

Essentially solitary, the black rhino breeds throughout the year. In the best conditions, the black rhino population might expand at just over 10 percent per year. Instead of expanding, though, the World Conservation Union places the black rhino on the red list for endangered species as a result of poaching and the demand for rhino "horn," which sells for a great price - as much as $1,000 a kilo (2.2 pounds) in powdered form at retail. Rhino horn is a popular ingredient in traditional Far Eastern remedies for such ailments as the flu; it also is used to make dagger handles around the Arabian Peninsula, particularly in Yemen.

Trade in rhino horn dropped the population of black rhinos in Africa from an estimated 65,000 in 1970 to as low as 2,400 by 1995, most of them in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe.. Estimates of the black rhino's population there in the mid-1980s were between 2,000 and 3,000, among the world's largest at the time. By 1994, though, barely 300 were left.

International bodies and Zimbabwe's government had tried to protect the rhinos by making trade in rhino horn difficult. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) enacted an international ban on the trade of white rhino parts at its first Conference of the Parties in 1975 and added the black rhino to the ban in 1977. To further thwart poachers, Zimbabwe committed itself in 1992 to a full-scale dehorning operation for all of its rhinos. And its "shoot-to-kill" policy against poachers left 178 suspected poachers and four game wardens dead. Yet, the black rhino moved closer to extinction than ever.

What went wrong? South African economist Michael 't Sas Rolfes observed that the CITES trade ban "led to a sharp increase in the black market price of rhino horn, which simply fueled further poaching and encouraged speculative stockpiling of horn." And dehorning offered no solution because of its high cost (up to $1,000 per animal); rapid horn regrowth, and fatal risks of overdoses in sedating the rhinos for the process. In addition, poachers often killed recently dehorned animals, perhaps to avoid tracking the rhinos again, to increase the price of stockpiled horn, or to obtain what little horn was left. And finally, corruption hindered protection efforts -- police, game wardens and even a member of Parliament have been convicted of either killing rhinos or trading in rhino horn.

In 1993, Zimbabwe's then-minister of environment, Herbert Murerwa, admitted the failure of the government's dehorning operation, and the remaining rhinos were moved into smaller areas known as Intensive Protection Zones (IPZs). But they were still unable to address the corruption issue and adequately protect the remaining rhinos.

By 1994, many pundits predicted the black rhino's demise. A front-page story in the Los Angeles Times then called efforts to save the black rhinoceros a "losing battle" and claimed that "by all accounts, (the black rhinoceros) may be doomed." The magazine Buzzworm carried an even more apocalyptic article the same year, simply headlined: "The Rhino Chainsaw Massacre: Why Rhinos Will Not Survive the Century."

Within a year, though, the headlines began to read, "Big-Game Hunters Pay to Conserve Wildlife," and, "Zimbabwe's Rhinos Make a Comeback." What happened?

They were saved in the same way as their kin, the white rhinoceros was saved in South Africa nearly a century early. Those cousins of the black rhino were thought to have been extinct there until a lone population of less than 100 of them was discovered in Natal, South Africa. In the ensuing decades, the Natal Parks Board tried a radical new approach to conservation. Instead of trying to devalue the rhinos, it strove to bolster their populations through a program of commercial use and management, including re-establishing the rhinos on private lands and, since 1986, auctioning them to the private sector for both trophy hunting and non-consumptive tourism. The results there were spectacular. Where in 1900 the southern white rhino was the most endangered of all the rhino species, it is today more numerous than all the other rhino species put together. And its population is growing fast, increasing from an estimated 7,500 in 1995 to 8,500 in 1997, with 20 percent of them in private hands.

By 1995, private conservancies for black rhinos in Zimbabwe started to make a difference, too.

Zimbabwe's Parks and Wildlife Act laid the groundwork two decades earlier by abolishing conventional, colonial-style state controls on hunting seasons, off-take quotas, license fees, etc., and instead conferring the right to manage wildlife to landowners. No one owns the wildlife, but landowners could utilize and control the animals on their land, making them de facto owners except for the rhinos over which the government retains putative control. A decade later, the Zimbabwe Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management (NPWM) moved private conservancy further ahead when in1986 it began moving rhinos out of the Zambezi Valley close to Zambia, alleged home of most of the poachers, to private land in Zimbabwe.

Then in 1989, the Beit Trust, a British-based organization, expressed an interest in providing grant money for rhino conservation through the Zimbabwe office of the WWF for Nature. Based at least partially on the success of the white rhino recovery in South Africa, WWF-Zimbabwe, and Raoul du Toit in particular, proposed using the Beit Trust money to help establish viable breeding groups of rhinos in free-ranging situations on large areas of private land. Once the program was initiated, these private lands would then have to be self-sufficient. Zimbabwean wildlife officials approved the conservancy project in 1990, convinced in part that an effective anti-poaching program would cost more than the Zimbabwe could afford -- an estimated $400-$1,000 annually per square kilometer of rhinoceros habitat with one staff person for every 20 kilometers.

So, in 1991, the Rhino Conservancy Project (RCP) officially began with a one-time grant of one million British pounds - about $1.5 million -- from the Beit Trust. What was in it for ranchers and why did they become involved? The 1991-92 drought in the lowveld, already a marginal area for cattle with much of the land denuded by the late 1980s, caused suffering among wildlife but devastated cattle. A 1994 Price Waterhouse report, commissioned by the conservancies and WWF-Zimbabwe/Beit Trust to explore available land-use options, concluded that, "from a financial perspective, wildlife is a more desirable land-use than cattle in the conservancies."

The Savé Valley Conservancy, occupying 850,000 acres in the southeastern part of Zimbabwe, provides an example of how a shift in financial incentive can aid replenishment of wildlife.

Savé Valley

In the 1970s, the Department of Veterinary Services systematically eradicated the buffalo and all but five elephants in the Savé Valley to prevent the spread of hoof and mouth disease. Many lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, and hyenas were removed to reduce stock losses, too.

In 1987, when a desperate government began relocating black rhinos to private lands, 20 were sent to the Humani Ranch owned by Roger Whittall, a well-known conservationist and safari operator who was already switching his land from cattle to wildlife. But it soon became clear that a single ranch could not adequately protect the rhinos, which frequently strayed from the property. By 1990, four had been killed by poachers. It was also determined that the minimum breeding group should be 30-40 animals, and that the ideal stocking rate was one per 10 square kilometers.

About this time, the Rhino Conservancy Project got under way. In August 1990, 18l ranchers owning 23 properties in the Savé Valley voted to form the conservancy, agreeing in 1991 to provide a sanctuary for the black rhinos. The ranchers decided that to make a go of the wildlife option they would pursue the big five, including, along with the rhinos, lions, leopards, elephants and buffalo.

Buffalo are crucial for photo safaris, and it was estimated they would more than double the financial returns to hunting. But buffalo carry hoof-and-mouth disease, and the Department of Veterinary Services would not allow them to be reintroduced as long as any cattle remained. Thus, a commitment to buffalo also meant a commitment to completely remove all cattle from the conservancy. To allay the fears of their neighbors and to placate Veterinary Services, the conservancy set up a double electric fence around the entire property to keep the buffalo in as anything else.

Today, the Savé again boasts large numbers of species such as buffalo, zebra, giraffe, warthog, wildebeest, hippo, leopard, cheetah, and elephant. There are also growing populations of impala, kudu, eland, bushbuck, bushpig, sable, and waterbuck. Species still slated to be supplemented or reintroduced include buffalo, eland, elephant, giraffe, hartebeest, nyala, ostrich, roan, sable, tsessebe, wildebeest, hyena, lion, and white rhino.

Of all the species on the conservancy, however, the black rhinos garner the most attention. The Savé has one of the largest black rhino populations in Zimbabwe, and their numbers are growing rapidly. By 1993, 35 rhino had been relocated to the conservancy. By June 1997 that number had grown, through natural recruitment, to 57. This near 12 percent per annum increase in the black rhino population is the highest ever recorded, and exceeds the predicted increase under optimal conditions. All of this makes the Savé a prime location for non-consumptive uses of wildlife such as photo safaris.

A Hunting Conservancy

A different and, to some, more painful, method of achieving rebirth has occurred at the Bubiana Conservancy. Formed among ranchers whose 10 properties make up nearly 400,000 acres in the southwestern lowveld below Bulawayo, Bubiana was jump-started by financial assistance from the Beit Trust, which helped to build the 216-kilometer fence around its perimeter. A condition of this "loan" was that the conservancy would not have to pay it back as long as it invested at least the same amount to purchase game animals to boost wildlife populations within the conservancy (the same policy applied to the Savé). The conservancy started with 38 introduced rhinos, and by 1998 that number had grown to 69. Bubiana also assigns guards to track each rhino every day, and they are breeding at about 10 percent a year.

Apart from the black rhinos, Bubiana is especially well known for its population of leopards, with a snarling caricature greetings visitors on Bubiana road signs. The variety of wildlife in the conservancy is rapidly expanding, with 390 species of birds counted on the property, including a wide variety of raptors such as the black eagle and the fish eagle.

The one important difference between it and the Savé Conservancy arises from the greater viability of cattle ranching in and around Bubiana. For this reason, the conservancy has not totally committed itself to wildlife. It is still considered a "green" zone by Veterinary Services, meaning that it is free of hoof-and-mouth disease. There are a small number of buffalo in the conservancy, but they all originated from disease-free stock. Disease-free buffalo are much more expensive, and so there are only about one hundred in the conservancy.

Each of Bubiana's members has taken a slightly different approach to revenue generation, including non-consumptive tourism, trophy hunting, a large cattle operation, irrigated agriculture, commercial fishing, and ostrich and crocodile farming.

The Barberton Lodge provides guests such activities as game drives, game rides on horseback, visits to see centuries-old bushmen paintings, and a boat ride on a dam filled with crocodiles and a fantastic array of bird species. But the highlight is tracking by foot and glimpsing one of the black rhinos.

While photo safaris and other non-consumptive activities can be quite lucrative, they take a great deal of time and investment to set up as guests expect comfortable accommodations, quality meals and a range of activities. This in turn means a fair number of staff. Hunters, on the other hand, are often happier with Spartan amenities, and one or two game scouts.

Some Bubiana properties charge between $500 and $1,000 per day for a hunting safari, on top of whatever trophy fees are incurred, which can amount to more than $3,000 for an animal like as a leopard. Hunting is, as one Bubiana partner was quoted as saying, "a low-cost entry option to benefiting from wildlife." It is also the reason why all of the Bubiana partners are now turning a profit from their wildlife operations.

Conservation Gains

The Savé and Bubiana constitutions oblige their members to share responsibility for wildlife re-stocking and management, but allow them to retain control over their properties. Following regular wildlife surveys and professional ecological advice, each conservancy member is allocated an annual quota for the consumptive utilization of different wildlife species on their property. Revenues are not shared between properties, but each member commits to a minimum level of funding for restocking and wildlife management, with credits against future payments to encourage funding beyond the minimum.

If the actions of one member adversely affect the conservancy, there is a legal recourse under the contractual obligations of the conservancy constitution. After the Savé Conservancy was formed in 1992, Clive Stockil said, "The powers we have as a result far exceed the powers of our local agricultural laws. For example, if a member overgrazes he can be prosecuted, because he'd be destroying the other members' ecosystem as well." Furthermore, this is unlikely to ever come up because the system is self-policing -- with no internal fences, any member who managed their land badly would lose game to better land next door.

The ranchers also work closely with the communal and resettlement lands that surround 66 percent of the Bubiana Conservancy and 84 percent of the Savé. These areas are among the most densely populated and poverty-stricken in Zimbabwe. Understanding and working with these communities is essential to the survival of the conservancies. Poaching, the most immediate threat to the survival of the both the black rhinos and the conservancies, seems to have been nullified. Vigilance provides part of the protection, including large rewards to discourage local people with the knowledge of the land to even try. But as explained by Kenneth Manyangadze, the head guide at Savé, in an article in International Wildlife. "We've learned we can't save the rhino only through our guns. The answer is also through the hearts of the people."

To further this end the Savé Valley Conservancy Trust was established as a philanthropic agency to support local community development. As one local council member put it, "To us, rhino are worth a lot more alive than dead." In addition, the Savé has come up with another innovative way for the surrounding communities to profit from the continued success of the conservancy. In August 1999, the World Bank's International Finance Corporation approved a loan of $1 million to the Savé Valley Conservancy to purchase animals to re-stock the conservancy. The Savé Conservancy Trust in parallel with the loan launched with a commitment from members to provide seed capital of ZW$1 million. The idea is that the Trust will purchase wildlife on behalf of the communities for release in the conservancy.

By owning the foundling number of animals in perpetuity, and selling any increases in population over the original number of founder stock back to the conservancy, an annual income will be established for the trust allowing both the communities and conservancy to benefit from the "living endowment."

The bottom line is that the black rhino numbers are growing in Zimbabwe for the first time in decades, hundreds of thousands of acres have been returned to wildlife habitat, and poverty-stricken rural communities are reaping some of the benefits of wildlife production on these lands.

Death for life

While it may seem gruesome to some, trophy hunting clearly provides huge incentives to protect wildlife throughout Africa.

Unfortunately, many environmental groups either oppose any sort of consumptive use for wildlife, or choose to ignore the successes that it has generated. Even the WWF for Nature hardly acknowledges the success of the conservancies. WWF International's website has a page entitled "What WWF is Doing to Save the Rhino," which has no mention of any private conservation activities. Another page, entitled "What Needs To Be Done," highlights the fact that "rhino habitat needs to be protected from fragmentation and degradation so that viable rhino populations can survive." That is, of course, exactly what the conservancies have already done, but WWF fails to mention that and only goes on to call for "government management authorities [to] allocate more resources into rhino conservation" and for "making CITES work."

Only CITES ban on trade in rhino horn did little to stave off the rapid decline of the Zimbabwean rhinos. And while calling for more government moneys may sound fine, especially in developing countries, the only way to generate those funds is to wed in countries like Zimbabwe, where poverty is widespread, is to commerce with conservation. When wildlife has value to the people living with and around it, they will be more likely to protect and provide habitat for wildlife.

This case study was written by Michael De Alessi, director of the Center for Private Conservation. Created in 1995, the Center for Private Conservation researches, documents, and promotes the public benefits of private conservation and private stewardship. The Center for Private Conservation is supported by the William H. Donner Foundation.

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