16 April 2020

At this testing time for conservation around the planet, some cautious optimism can be found in the story of the black rhino, whose growing numbers across Africa are the hard-earned outcome of global collaboration.

In centuries past, the horns and hulking bodies of black rhinos were common sights across the African plains. Differing from their white rhino cousins by their distinctive prehensile hooked lip adapted to pull vegetation from branches, the black rhino is one of the most charismatic surviving megafauna.

Times have been challenging for humans and wildlife alike across the 20th century. What was a population of more than 60,000 black rhino in the 1970’s was reduced to a trough of just 2300 individuals in 1993. Habitat loss and a global trade in rhino horn are to blame. The voracious demands of consumer markets around the world, and particularly in the wildlife trade hotspot of East Asia, offer a lucrative bounty too valuable to avoid for poachers motivated by wealth or desperation.

There are answers in the face of this loss, however. Such a steep population crash at the hands of a human threat has galvanised action amongst the international community and those in the countries to which black rhino is native. Years later, we’re finally seeing a recovery.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has recently reported continued population growth, from 2012 to 2018, of 2.5% year on year. Around 5630 black rhinos now exist in the wild.

In-depth anti-poaching measures and the successful management of black rhino populations both within Africa and elsewhere can be credited with this success, though a long road remains ahead before we can be confident that extinction of the black rhino has been averted.

Alongside many partners, here at Chester Zoo we’ve made our own contributions to this huge effort.

Historically, Chester Zoo supported the actions of the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust at Mkomazi National Park in revolutionising the region. Beginning in 1989, the Trust established numerous fenced sanctuaries for the successful reintroduction of eastern black rhino into the ecosystem. Our financial support, alongside that of others, aided infrastructure repairs and improvements, facilities for the rhinos, protection activities, direct rhino translocations to the region, and a highly successful education programme. The park is now handled by the Tanzanian National Parks Authority (TANAPA) where work to protect its horned inhabitants is ongoing.

In the present day, this model continues in Kenya, where our support for the Big Life Foundation in Chyulu Hills National Park helps to fund the protection of the nation’s only true free-ranging black rhino population. Chester Zoo’s fantastic conservation education team also support Big Life in their community outreach work in the wider Tsavo-Amboseli ecosystem, through training and the production of learning resources.

Outside of Africa, what cannot be overlooked is the importance of the ex-situ European population of black rhino. The 2019 count of 91 individuals in European collections holds invaluable genetic diversity from wild populations now lost to time. Last year, we played a pivotal role in the EAZA-led (European Association of Zoos & Aquaria) reintroduction of five European-born black rhino to Rwanda, Africa, from collections across Europe.

Chester Zoo’s team of conservation endocrinologists, operating from Europe’s only zoo-based hormone laboratory have supported this reintroduction through biological monitoring, as well as playing a key role in the black rhino breeding programme both at Chester and across the continent. By studying faecal metabolites – the broken down remains of hormones found in poo – before and after rhino reintroduction, the team aim to understand how to individuals respond to a change in surroundings, helping to plan further work in the future.

Katie Edwards – Lead Conservation Scientist for Biomarker Research and Development – has produced crucial research on black rhino reproductive cycles and hormones, and their relationship with nutrition, behaviour and the microbes found in rhino guts. Never before have we had so much information at our disposal to drive the success of a breeding programme.

Although this recent success is hopeful the black rhino story is far from over. The coronavirus pandemic has heightened the threat to the wild population from poaching as the income from tourism relied upon by so many conservation initiatives dries up and the resulting economic pressures on local communities drives more people to illegal hunting of wildlife. These are challenging times and we will need to re-double our efforts to support anti-poaching measures, including courageous rangers who are on the front line of this fight to prevent extinction.

A grand collaboration of ex-situ breeding collections, NGO’s and governments can avert the extinction of a species, though the success of these missions is only possible thanks to the generosity of their supporters. The significance of your contributions to our work and that of our partners cannot be understated and will be even more important in the challenging times ahead

The black rhino is just one of the many threatened species that we are aiming to protect. With continued support, action and partnership, these stories of hope will only continue to increase in number – so too will the wildlife populations under our watch.