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VIP passengers: the five black rhinos flown 2,700 miles on a mission to repopulate Chad

<span>Photograph: Marcus Westberg/African Parks</span>
Photograph: Marcus Westberg/African Parks

For more than five years, the two black rhinos in Chad’s Zakouma national park have lived a lonely existence. It wasn’t meant to be that way. In May 2018, the pair of females were part of a group of six critically endangered black rhinos that African Parks helped translocate from South Africa to Zakouma. But within days of release into their new home, four had died.

“It happened very quickly. It’s not a pure science, doing translocations,” says Martin Rickelton, African Parks’ regional operations manager. “An awful lot of work went into feasibility studies – experts looked at everything.”

This week, five more black rhinos arrived in Zakouma, Chad’s oldest national park, to join the surviving pair. African Parks hope the outcome this time will be different, bringing the return of a western black rhino population to Chad, where they had been locally extinct for more than 40 years.

The rhinos travelled by air from Limpopo, South Africa, with stops in Zambia and Burundi, then on to Zakouma on a C130 military aircraft. From the start of loading each animal into their individual steel crates to release, the total journey of 4,400km (2,734 miles) took about 36 hours.

The new arrivals are doing well and settling into their enclosures, known as bomas. They comprise a mix of black rhino subspecies for genetic diversity. Six black rhinos were originally set to be moved but one of the bulls had a history of depression and was eventually excluded.

Related: How rehoming wildlife from rhinos to bison can revive threatened species

The western black rhinoceros lived in Zakouma until 1972, with poaching the primary cause of its demise. “This translocation marks a remarkable opportunity – a second chance – for black rhinos in Zakouma and Chad,” says Cyril Pélissier, park manager. Establishing a sustainable population “demonstrates our dedication to righting past wrongs and ensuring a more secure future for these majestic creatures”, he says.

Black rhinos are native to eastern and southern Africa. They are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list as critically endangered, with just 6,487 across the continent in 2022. Yet poaching remains a significant threat to rhino populations with at least 561 rhinos killed by poachers that year.

Zakouma’s wildlife previously suffered from rampant poaching for ivory and other illegal trade, including by Janjaweed militia members, leading to a 95% decline in elephants between 2002 and 2010. “Security has been a top priority,” Pélissier says. “Strong anti-poaching measures have been in place in Zakouma for over a decade.”

Wildlife numbers have gone up in recent years. “Chad has come through a lot of turmoil,” says Rickelton. “But we’ve turned the corner on elephant poaching. We haven’t had an elephant poached in Zakouma in about seven years. Zakouma’s elephant population increased by 40% since 2010.”

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Huge efforts have been made to improve survival odds for the rhinos this time around, including a close look at what went wrong last time. Those six rhinos arrived in Zakouma in May 2018 and spent six weeks in bomas before being released into a 33 sq km sanctuary in late June, then into the wider park by the end of September. Four of the animals rapidly went downhill and died in October.

“The animals were released at the end of the wet season, with the rationale that everything was green so the habitat was good,” says Rickelton. “But as it dried out, there were changes in that habitat, so the animals were unable to find the areas within the park that would maintain them. They were browsing but not getting the right nutrition to sustain them.”

This time, the rhinos will spend 14 days in bomas before being released into the wider park. The key change is that “we’ve done a 180-degree change in the seasons, so we’re now going into the dry season”, says Rickelton. “The animals will have a greater area available to them.”

In addition, they will still be able access supplementary feed near the bomas, and can be recaptured if their health declines.

Rickelton wasn’t involved in the 2018 translocation but is overseeing this one. “Of course, I personally am worried. All this stuff is very complex – there are a lot of things that can go wrong. We’ve looked at it since 2018, and we’re comfortable we’ve worked out what the problems were, and confident enough to go ahead. We go slowly with projects to make sure we get it right, to learn and then bring in additional animals.”

He adds: “Translocations include risk but I do believe [they are] necessary. Black rhinos used to be there. The ecosystem will alter without rhinos there, and we don’t understand what the impact will be in the long term. A lot of conservation is about taking risks, managing the risks and moving forward.”

Related: Sold: 2,000 captive southern white rhino destined for freedom across Africa

There are plans to bring in at least 13 more black rhinos by 2025 to join the current seven. Rickelton concludes: “The intention is to have at least 20 – the minimum for a viable starter population. We’ll evaluate the situation now we’ve got this load here. We’ll watch carefully, make sure we’ve got it right, learn any lessons, and then we’ll go again.”

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