The removal of few surplus black rhino bulls can enhance rhino conservation, argue the authors
Benefits include limiting inbreeding and generating funds that go back into conservation, they say
Editor’s Note: Editor’s note: Dr Mike Knight is the Chairman of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) and the South African Development Community Rhino Management Group (SADC RMG). Dr Richard Emslie is the AfRSG Scientific Officer and also a SADC RMG member. All views expressed in this commentary are solely theirs.
It is often hard for people to understand the rationale for the sport hunting of an endangered rhino species, especially at a time when poaching has been increasing.
Although it seems counter-intuitive, the removal of a few surplus male black rhinos can enhance rhino conservation – in addition to generating much needed revenue to protect and conserve rhinos.
Since 2004, both Namibia and South Africa have each had annual hunting quotas of up to five black rhino bulls approved by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES – an organization formulated by the IUCN).
Only specific, surplus males are hunted, with each case considered on its merits. Based on research by the IUCN and SADC RMG, conservation reasons for hunting black rhinos include:
Limiting inbreeding by removing older bulls that have dominated the breeding for many years. Inbreeding reduces genetic diversity and increases the chances of poor reproductive success – both critical in successful small population management, according to research we’ve seen by Bob Lacy of the Chicago Zoological Society.
Our black rhino monitoring data shows that black rhino female calving success significantly improve as the ratio of adult males to females in a population declines. This is compounded by a significantly (53%) male biased average black rhino sex ratio at birth.
Also, some rhino populations have a higher number of males than others, and those with more females are unwilling to take any of these excess males. Simply leaving excess males in populations eventually results in increased fighting and mortalities and slower population growth rates.
Improving breeding performance
Black rhino breeding performance improves when better quality nutrition is available for breeding females. The removal of an older surplus bull can free up food resources for females, potentially enhancing breeding. Very occasionally, an infertile but dominant bull can negatively impact on breeding. The hunting of such a bull results in the cows conceiving again and a net gain in rhino numbers.
Stopping bulls killing each other
Older bulls are often pushed to peripheral areas by other younger stronger bulls. Bulls pushed into communal areas north of Etosha National Park in Namibia are vulnerable to poaching if not removed.
The Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET)’s’s Chief Conservation Scientist in charge of Wildlife Research, Pierre du Preez, has found that introducing such older bulls, older than 25 years, back into established rhino populations has resulted in fighting mortalities or break outs.
In one case, according to Preez, the MET reports that one bull broke out of Etosha three times despite being released 60km inside the park. As a result, MET has stopped relocating such older bulls back into Etosha, so their limited resources can be better spent on rhino conservation and protection.
These older animals have been taken to an alternative site as nominated candidates for hunting and the bull hunted by the Dallas Safari Club auction winner was one such animal, aged at least 29 – the life span of black rhinos is 35 to 40 years.
Occasionally, these bulls have killed other rhinos. One cannot simply export such problem animals elsewhere.
Trophy hunting positives
Preez tells us that the increased cost of Namibian efforts to combat escalating poaching are significantly impacting on budgets. Any additional revenue that can be allocated to anti-poaching efforts is especially welcome at this time.
The Namibian Game Products Trust Fund (GPTF) established in 1997 has a proven track record of channeling revenue from wildlife-use back into conservation.
In the case of Namibia’s black rhino hunts, all proceeds after expenses (including from the Dallas Safari Club auction) go into an account within the GPTF that can only be used for approved rhino conservation projects.
Trophy hunting of South Africa’s white rhinos commenced in 1968 when there were only 1,800 animals with numbers increasing more than ten-fold ever since. Since the start of limited black rhino hunting in both Namibia and South Africa in 2004, total numbers of black rhinos in the two countries have increased by an estimated 51% (although this cannot be attributed to hunting).
Not a single country has hunted five black rhino bulls per year – the quota approved by CITES, indicating that conservation, rather than profit, has been driving the hunting. The maximum quotas approved currently represent only 0.24% and 0.29% of the national rhino population in each country. Clearly, rhino hunting levels have also been sustainable.
We’ve found that it has often been suggested that the amount that is paid at an auction to hunt a rhino should, instead, be paid towards saving the animal. This does not consider who will pay the expensive costs of the animal, its capture and relocation, its relocation site, and the ongoing management, monitoring and protection.
We feel that the money and land required to look after “rescued surplus males” could be better spent conserving existing rhino populations. Focusing on the population rather than one individual bull is wiser in addressing the far bigger problem of escalating poaching.
In the light of all this evidence, the member governments and conservation organizations of the IUCN agreed in 2012 on “the important role that commercial wildlife enterprises, including trophy hunting, has played in generating incentives for conservation and stimulating population increases of rhinos … in Africa.”