Every morning, South African conservationist Donovan Jooste looks out on to grasslands populated with some of the 2,000 southern white rhinos currently in his care. Representing 12-15% of Africa’s remaining white rhino population, there are more of the animals on this farm in the North West province of South Africa than can be found in any single wild location across the continent.
“It’s definitely a sight. It’s a unique scenario to see so many in a single place,” Jooste says. “But the conservation opportunity is even more exciting. The question is: how do we get from where we are now to having them in open, well-protected areas?”
That’s a big question. In September this year, African Parks became the official custodian of the 2,000 rhinos. The organisation had stepped in to buy the world’s largest private captive rhino-breeding operation: Platinum Rhino, a 7,800-hectare (19,300-acre) property south-east of Johannesburg.
Platinum Rhino’s founder and former owner, the South African multimillionaire John Hume, started breeding rhinos in 1992 with about 200 animals. It’s not known how much his idea was motivated by conservation or business, but Hume bet on the idea that the international ban on rhino horn would be overturned. He has retained a stockpile of valuable rhino horn, which wasn’t included in the sale to African Parks.
With the international trade in rhino horn remaining illegal, Hume announced five years ago that the farm was facing an economic crisis, with his life savings drained to cover the £8,000 daily running costs. The farm was put up for auction in April, with the starting bid set at £8m.
With no bids received, the rhinos faced a serious threat of poaching and fragmentation. “Their future was unsure,” says Jooste, African Parks’ rhino rewilding project manager, who is overseeing the project. “The vulnerability of these rhinos would’ve increased tenfold. It would have been detrimental to the species, because you’re not sure what would happen to this 15% of the population.”
After securing emergency funding from donors, African Parks bought the farm, equipment, rhinos and other animals (including 213 buffaloes, 11 giraffes, seven zebra, five hippos, plus sheep and goats) for an undisclosed sum, with a plan to phase out active breeding and translocate all 2,000 captive-bred rhinos and their future offspring (estimated to be 100 a year) to protected areas across Africa over the next 10 years, helping to secure the long-term future of the species.
How big a deal for conservation is 2,000 rhinos? “The opportunity is endless. They have massive ecological value, the ability to maintain and shape landscapes … as well as economic value, for tourism, and community value. It’s a massive undertaking for conservation, but the end vision is a massive win.”
Southern white rhinos came close to extinction in the late 1800s, with populations wiped out by colonial hunters. “Numbers of southern white rhino across Africa are now going up,” says Mike Knight, chair of the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group. Their numbers increased to 16,803, up 5.6% from 2021 to 2022, he adds.
Poaching remains the main threat. “Across the continent, poaching pressure generally declined from 2015 onwards,” Knight says. “Yet at least 551 rhinos were poached in Africa in 2022.”
2,000 rhinos in open systems is a lot better than 2,000 rhinos in a semi-captive operation
Donovan Joost, rhino project manager
African Parks estimate that maintaining the farm – including food, animal health, staff and security – will cost approximately 75m rand (£3.2m) a year. “We know the big arrow that rhinos have on their backs, so security is a massive undertaking, with rangers on the ground 24/7,” Jooste says.
The translocation process is expected to start early next year, with a large portion to remain in South Africa.
Almost 10,000 rhinos have been lost to poaching in South Africa since 2007. In 2022, 124 rhinos were killed in Kruger National Park alone. “There is a worry about moving rhinos to areas where they will be poached, not just in South Africa,” Jooste says. “We totally understand the risks associated with this project. It would be absolutely naive of us to say we’ll do this without incurring any losses or risks. But 2,000 rhinos in open systems is a lot better than 2,000 rhinos in a semi-captive operation.”
The rest of the rhinos will be moved to other countries. African Parks currently manages 22 parks across 12 countries, including Malawi, Rwanda and the DRC, all offering potential new homes.
Moving the animals will be an epic and expensive undertaking. African Parks estimates it will cost about £1,200 to move each animal within South Africa and more than £4,000 an animal within the Southern African Development Community region, rising to beyond £40,000 an animal for translocations to central Africa, which require aerial transport.
“This will be a huge challenge, given the numbers of animals involved,” says Kester Vickery, co-founder of Conservation Solutions and a wildlife translocation specialist who has been advising on the project.
Translocations are difficult and risky. In 2018, six black rhinos were moved from South Africa to Zakouma National Park in Chad but four died after release due to the lower nutrition levels in plants at their new home. “There are many risks attached to these translocations, with many unknowns,” Vickery says.
The biggest challenge, says Vickery, will be coping with diseases and differing climates in the rhinos’ new homes. African Parks aims to mitigate these risks, offering monitoring teams for treatment and disease prevention until the animals build up immunity.
Jooste is looking forward to getting started. “The most exciting aspect is returning rhinos into open systems for the ecological value they can add to protected areas,” he says.
“Most importantly, if we have this conversation in 20 years, I hope we’re not talking about 16,000 rhinos, but 25,000, 40,000, 50,000 rhinos. That’s the absolute top goal: that we never find ourselves in this situation with so few rhinos again.”