Chad's Black Rhinos: Back from the Dead

Josh Wright

04 May 2018

After a 50-year absence, black rhinos are returning to Zakouma National Park

The black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) has been extinct from the Central African nation of Chad since the 1970s, the victim of decades of poaching. Hundreds of years ago the species ranged from what is now Eritrea through Sudan, South Sudan, Chad and as far east as Niger, but today the vast majority of black rhinos live below the equator, all still at risk of poaching and some subspecies so under threat that dedicated armed guards have been employed to protect the animals. For many years the future of the world’s dwindling black rhino population seemed to lie in southerly African states with well-established national parks and reserves like South Africa and Namibia. But recently news has broken that six South African black rhinos are returning to Chad after a 3,000+ mile migration – by air.

Due to their lack of opposable thumbs, this plucky sextet are being aided in their aerial journey by South African NGO African Parks, who have managed Chad’s Zakouma National Park – the rhinos’ destination – since 2010. The move was first agreed back in October 2017, between the governments of Chad and South Africa, but it was not until the 2nd of May 2018 when the animals finally took to the air. Each of the rhinos was sourced by South African Parks Network (SANParks), who transferred them earlier this year to a series of bomas, or holding pens, located in a secure holding facility in the Eastern Cape. By giving the soon-to-be migrants time to adjust to a new area before the long flight, SANParks staff were able to monitor the rhinos and assess whether they would be able to successfully adjust to life in a foreign environment upon arrival in Zakouma.

Reintroducing rhinos to one of their former range states is, of course, a fantastic move for all those concerned with the conservation of the world’s wildlife, especially when it comes to a species that has been one of the worst affected by the illegal wildlife trade. But with only six animals making the trip, the survival of Chad’s new rhino population is already teetering on a precipice. No more than 24 hours after the plane bearing the animals took off, three black rhinos were killed in Kenya’s Meru Park, with the poachers yet to be apprehended. So how can Chad, among the poorest countries in the world and ranked second-lowest in the Human Development Index, hope to protect these critically endangered animals from those who would choose to harm them?

The answer is the dedicated work of African Parks, as well as Rian and Lorna Labuschagne, who served as managers of Zakouma between 2011 and 2017. Before their arrival, the park had experienced almost a decade of intensive poaching which drove the park’s elephant population down from around 4,000 to no more than 450. Between 2006 and 2008 alone, an incredible 2,000 elephants were killed in Zakouma and the surrounding area, many by armed militia groups looking to fund their activities with the sale of illegal ivory. Zakouma’s rangers were victims too, with 23 losing their lives since 1998 in their struggle to protect the park’s precious wildlife. Even after the management of Zakouma changed hands, a massacre which left a six-ranger patrol team dead in 2012 occurred at Heban Outpost, 50 miles north of the park.

But with the implementation of increased security measures, specialist ranger training, satellite collaring of wildlife and community outreach events, Zakouma’s fortunes have taken a decided turn for the better. A crack team of rapid-response rangers known as the Mambas patrol the park either on horseback or motorbikes – ideal for the rugged terrain. New bases and an airstrip have been built, a second aircraft purchased, and a central radio control room is now manned 24/7 to facilitate communication between park staff and local communities. Poaching has been ‘practically eliminated’ since African Parks took over Zakouma, and over 500 elephants now live within the park’s borders – thought to be the largest herd in all of Africa - while the numbers of buffalo, giraffe, roan antelope and Lelwel’s hartebeest are also on the rise.

With the security of Zakouma’s wildlife firmly established, there has never been a better time for rhinos to be reintroduced to Chad. A number of rhino-specific measures have also been put into place ready for the animals’ arrival, including a dedicated ranger unit and improved aerial surveillance capabilities. African Parks also have past experience in reintroducing black rhino, having done so in Malawi’s Majete Wildlife Reserve in 2003 and Rwanda’s Akagera National Park in 2017.

Reintroducing the black rhino to Chad has far-reaching benefits, and not just for travellers wishing to see this magnificent species in the wild. By expanding the rhino’s range – doing so, crucially, with six individuals who are fertile and genetically compatible – will go a long way towards ensuring the survival of the species. At up to $60,000 per kilogram, rhino horn is the most expensive product on the planet – in demand for everything from traditional Asian medicine to ceremonial daggers – making rhinos one of the most threatened species on the planet. In March 2018, the last male northern white rhino died in captivity, leaving behind just two known female individuals and making the subspecies functionally extinct. A number of black rhino subspecies have gone the same way, ultimately falling victim to habitat destruction and the poacher’s rifle, including the southern black rhino and the western black rhino.

As well as benefitting the black rhino species in general, the Chadian reintroduction will also enrich the lives of Zakouma’s staff and the local communities living in and around the park. Zakouma is the largest employer in the region, and with this conservation milestone, the park’s profile and status can only improve, bringing with it more visitors and more benefits for the local economy. And even though Zakouma’s new rhino population will start off small, their arrival is nevertheless a huge step in the right direction for African Parks’ mission in managing Zakouma. The organisation identified this park as one which had endured incredible hardships, but also one whose wildlife and wilderness could be restored through the right management and the “restocking” of lost or depleted species.

Together, African Parks, SANParks, and the governments of both Chad and South Africa have accomplished a hugely commendable feat of conservation. Those six airborne rhinos had no way of knowing how vital their survival will be for the future of their species, but also for conservation initiatives in general. Should this group of horned heroes and heroines find a new home in Zakouma and give birth to a new generation of black rhino, it will give strength to all those who dream of preserving our endangered species, regardless of how long the path (or flight) ahead may be.

Trip Details

small group information

We run set departures to Zakouma National Park, where you can stay in a mobile tented camp, engage with the African Parks Conservation Network and witness the spectacle of Zakouma’s black rhinos and other wildlife with your very own eyes. Conducted alongside expert guides, this trip has limited space for just 8 guests. Daily activities will be decided by your guide based on weather conditions and wildlife activity.

Please see the full itinerary for more information.

For more of an insight into this safari, read NWS MD Will Bolsover's Chad safari blog!

2019 Travel Dates  Prices 
Feb 10 - 18 From £10,970


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