Our rewilding initiative
A comprehensive proposal to annually rewild approximately 100 southern white rhinoceros to their natural habitat in southern Africa is ready for implementation. It forms part of a private conservation initiative that can reduce the pressure on shrinking populations of this iconic species.
Rewilding is a modern approach by conservation scientists as an alternative to traditional conservation methods. It encompasses an ecological restoration process whereby keystone, functional species are reintroduced to enhance conservation ecosystems and counteract loss in biodiversity, which differs from traditional conservation’s species-focused methods. The animals for this rewilding proposal will be sourced from among the 2 004 rhinos currently located on 8 400 hectares of grassland in North West Province where John Hume – for the best part of three decades – has successfully bred the species away from extinction.
John’s dedication to protecting rhinos and his success in the breeding and safekeeping of them, is one of the most remarkable conservation success stories in the private sector in South Africa. About thirty years ago, his concern about the future survival of the species inspired him to purchase a small group of 12 rhino. Since then, 1 800 calves have been born and 82 rhinos were sold. A total of 360 rhinos have died, mostly from natural causes. At an average population growth of 8%, this unique project has made the single biggest contribution to sustaining the southern white rhino population.
Rhino poaching figures in South Africa remain high. In February this year, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment released poaching figures for 2021. SANParks lost 209 rhinos to poaching in 2021, while 124 rhinos were poached from private reserves in the same period. Earlier this week, conservation authorities in KwaZulu-Natal announced that 106 rhinos have been poached in the province’s parks and reserves since January 2022. During 2021, KZN lost 102 rhinos to poaching, and 93 in 2020.
At John’s Platinum Rhino CBO project, the team’s track record for successfully protecting the rhino from poachers is impressive. “We recently celebrated five years and two months without losing a single rhino to poaching,” says John. There is empathy for the state-owned parks, such as the Kruger National Park and KwaZulu-Natal’s parks, where the circumstances are that much more challenging, as it was due to some of those same circumstances that in 2011 John relocated his rhino from Mpumalanga to the North West Province.
“To prevent the rhino from going extinct, you must breed better, and you must protect better,” he says. “You need to be able to do both.”
“Our rhinos are under constant 24-hour visual watch. The security system comprises state-of-the-art technology, including radar and virtual fences, boots on the ground, and helicopter surveillance,” explains Brandon Jones, the project’s security manager. “We know where all the rhinos are all of the time.”
Rhino horn trimming, under the guidance of veterinarian Dr Michelle Otto, forms part of the project’s security measures. This practice has been adopted widely by rhino custodians across the region, including in the Kruger National Park, to make the rhinos less attractive to poachers.
“Protecting rhino costs a lot of money, whether you are in the Kruger National Park or a private owner,” says general manager Johnny Hennop. The security is paying off, however, as the project bucks the trend elsewhere in southern Africa where rhinos in national parks and increasingly on private reserves continue to be killed for their horn. “Looking at the numbers the national parks are losing, we are doing something right,” says Hennop. Breeding and taking care of thousands of rhinos as John has done would not have been possible without his drive and that of his dedicated management team. From general manager Johnny Hennop to wildlife veterinarian Dr Michelle Otto, and security manager Brandon Jones, the team has brought combined decades of experience and skill to the project. “Our hearts are in this work,” says Johnny. “We have such a dedicated team. Everyone dreams of working with these animals.”
From a breeding management perspective, the original animals – or founders – of the breeding programme were originally introduced from 95 different locations spread throughout South Africa. The founders were distributed across several of the project’s breeding populations to create genetic diversity. The offspring produced are relocated to other breeding populations to prevent inbreeding and promote further genetic diversification. The project achieves exceptional breeding rates through effective animal biological management and comprehensive stud book record-keeping.
Dr Otto is working on a collaboration with Dr Cindy Harper and RhODIS (Rhino DNA Index System) based at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria at Onderstepoort on an extensive genetic analysis of the project’s rhino to identify if there are any rare genetic lines present that need to be preserved. This is another example of the value the project contributes to the genetic viability of the remaining southern white rhino populations. And it is because of this genetic preservation that the project’s rhino are a vital source for rewilding by introducing new genes to reinforce and re-establish wild populations.
“As a species survival tactic, the project is a resounding success that enables us to proceed with the rewilding of around 100 rhinos a year, says Richard Hume, John’s son. “Range conditions are compatible with the relocation of animals back into secure natural habitats. The rhinos are doing everything that they would do in their natural environment.”
Following John’s 80th birthday, continuation of the breeding project is a top priority to ensure that three decades of his life’s work and passion for rhino are not lost forever. The rewilding programme is a natural and logical spin-off that will give wildlife conservation minded organisations and individuals the chance to be part of a meaningful initiative that will continue to save the southern white rhino from extinction.
The project team invites interested parties that can make a direct contribution to conservation to secure this breeding project and take it into the next phase of rewilding. “The continuation of the project needs to be secured and everyone, from the South African Government to NGOs to private investors, can play a role and we would like to collaborate with others and welcome more organisations on board,” said Richard Hume.
“The threat to rhinos is not waning. We will lose them all unless we do something different,” concludes John.