RCB is committed to undertaking research that will improve the understanding, management, translocation and conservation of wild black and white rhinos in Botswana and beyond. To this end, we are exploring several lines of novel research
RHINO DNA DATABASE
RCB is building a rhino DNA database of all the rhinos in Botswana to inform future management decisions, such as identifying the best individuals to build new populations in other rhino range states.
LONG DISTANCE COMMUNICATION
RCB is investigating long-distance communication methods used by white and black rhinos. Olfactory, chemical and audio communication is recorded in both species, but vocal communication over long distances has not been established. Yet somehow newly released, translocated individuals find other rhinos quickly, without any vocal communication detectable by humans. Understanding how rhinos find each other could be used to improve translocation success, particularly by reducing the stress associated with the need to find other rhinos following release.
RCB will explore the impact of returning a mega-herbivore, such as rhino, to an ecosystem from which it has been absent for a long time. The results will inform conservation efforts to create new populations of keystone species, such as elephants and rhinos, across Africa.
FACTORS AFFECTING RHINO TRANSLOCATION SUCCESS
Species relocation is currently used to boost or re-establish populations, to maintain genetic diversity and to move vulnerable species from high mortality zones to safer regions. Translocation success can be difficult to assess, but it varies substantially between areas, species and seasons, and is affected by a variety of individual factors, such as age and gender. Successful translocations result in self-sustaining populations. However, many translocated populations are not monitored post-release.
The capture and transport process itself is not without stress to the individual. This can affect survival, establishment and reproduction. Stress can also affect as cognitive processes, such as spatial memory and decision times, which can make it harder for translocated animals to adapt to their new environment.
Some species are kept in temporary enclosures prior to release, known as “soft release”, whereas others are released as soon as they arrive at their destination, called “hard release”. Soft release can help species to settle close to their release site and learn about the resources available in their new home, but some animals experience high stress levels or lose condition in captivity, even during short periods. Low resource availability experienced during certain seasons can affect the survival of translocated animals, which do not know where to find resources when times are hard.
When translocating animals from different areas to form or boost a population, their individual demographic category must be considered. Young animals frequently disperse from their birth range, and are better at creating spatial memories than adults. However, young animals are more vulnerable than adults to environmental stress and predation. They are also less fecund.
It’s also important to consider the genetic identity of translocated individuals and make sure they represent a high level of genetic diversity, but do not represent distinct sub-species with different levels of adaptation to particular environments. Forage resources and climatic conditions in the rhinos’ original home and new location should also be similar to enable the individuals to settle into new areas as rapidly as possible.
Individuals being released into a new environment must find food, water, shelter and mates without prior knowledge of their location, as well as avoid risks such as predators and aggressive territory holders. Release sites can be selected to make sure that food and water is easily located, but the location of other rhinos is less easy to predict. Locating mates is key for breeding success, but territorial, asocial species such as black rhinoceros can experience high mortality rates when being released into an established neighbourhood of territory holders.
White rhinoceros were reintroduced to Botswana in 2001, and a small number of black rhinoceros were reintroduced in 2003, from a range of reserves in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Both species have been establishing territories and breeding since their reintroduction. Individuals are fitted with tracking devices, and detailed records are kept of their movements, reproduction and survival.
Our research project – in association with the Okavango Research Institute, University of Botswana – is using the large dataset gathered for Botswana’s new populations of wild rhinos by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) and Rhino Conservation Botswana to assess the factors affecting translocation success. The project is also assessing stress levels throughout the translocation process, to identify stressful situations and triggers. Finally, the project is assessing the circumstances leading to rhino vocalisations and extent of long-distance acoustic communication in rhinos.
We look forward to updating you on our progress.