Running the Rhino

There is nothing that brings as much joy as a rhino calf bounding about, full of life with all the charisma oozing out their tiny bodies and their oversized feet. There is no specific rhino calving season, but births do tend to be higher heading into the dry season. We have had eight new bouncing calves born in the last two months, with more expected to arrive soon.

Welgevonden has become well known for fantastic rhino sightings but over the last half decade the Reserve has really reinforced itself as a stronghold for white rhino in the Waterberg.

We have come a long way considering little over five years ago the white rhino population was substantially lower, with any excess animals being sold off to recoup costs for game purchases. This all changed when white rhinos were identified as being key engineers for the expansion of Welgevonden’s grazing lawns, as part of the Plains Project, a project aimed at improving the nutrition in focused areas for herbivores. Being mega-herbivores, white rhino are considered ecosystem engineers because they have the ability to create and maintain expanses of short grass, which in turn modifies the habitat for other grazers. The decision to increase the rhino population was however not solely driven by the undeniable benefits they would provide, but a greater calling and need to protect the species. In 2015, the African rhino poaching crisis had reached its pinnacle, calling for widespread action to save the rhino. The window was open for the Reserve to provide sanctuary to rhino from other properties, who perhaps could not afford the sky-high security costs that accompanied the poaching risk while meeting Welgevonden’s desire to increase the white rhino numbers.

So the Rhino Rescue Programme was born, enabling rhino owners on other properties to move their animals to Welgevonden, where they would be safer and better protected from the poacher’s gun but would still belong to the original owners. Any calves born through this agreement would belong to Welgevonden and the owners in equal partnership. This brilliant mutualism between Reserve and rhino owners allowed Welgevonden to not only acquire ecosystem engineers to help maintain the graze but simultaneously assist in conserving one of the most globally at-risk species.

Currently ~44% of Welgevonden rhino are “Rescue” rhino this includes calves born to Rescue rhino cows but sired by Welgevonden bulls. It has been a learning curve for the Conservation team understanding what vets call maladaptation syndrome and discovering the sensitivities of rhino gut flora to dietary changes and dealing with a dependence on animal feed.

It is a delicate operation to get the rhino used to the Waterberg and our patch of sourveld, but once adapted they perform well.  The increase in poaching together with the Rhino Rescue Programme necessitated the intensive monitoring of our rhino population. Each individual is uniquely marked and monitoring forms an exciting part of the Research Volunteer Programme’s tasks capably assisted by the ever present Welgevonden Reaction field rangers, technology and a number of field guides and owners who regularly report on the wellbeing of our rhino. The long-term average natural population growth rate of the Welgevonden white rhino is ~6% with the population growing at an impressive 16.6% annually between 2015 – 2019, when introductions were taking place. With a highpoint of ten calves born on Welgevonden in a single year (2018), we have had many calves born to our Reserve – a true conservation victory.

With an increase in the vulnerability of rhino due to poaching, and the responsibility of us as custodians of this magnificent species, comes an increased requirement in the security effort required to protect the Reserve and its animals. It could easily be assumed that increased security means an increase in staff numbers, however this is a reality to a lesser degree than expected. The application of technology to leverage efficiencies in the use of resources, both human and logistical, has allowed for remote surveillance and monitoring in and around the Reserve, as well as in the general area and district. The ultimate goal here is to deal with and manage the threats before they arrive on our literal doorstep.  
The next time you are on a game drive and you happen upon that beautiful, bouncing calf and its proud mother, think of all that has been achieved and the legacy that has been created. These are achievements that should be heartily celebrated. All the above is testament to the hard work and commitment of Welgevonden’s Members and the Conservation and Security teams.

Photos: ©Carmen Warmenhove & ©Margerie Aucamp

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