18 June 2011 by Julienne du Toit

The White Rhino Saga

If ever you want to read a gritty book about real conservation, you should try to get hold of Dr Ian Player’s book, The White Rhino Saga. Although out of print, you can still find second-hand copies.

In it he writes about a remarkable few years of his life (late 1950s and late 1960s) when he spearheaded the effort to save the white rhino from extinction. There were nearly 400 white rhino at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal at the time, but pitifully few anywhere else.

These few vulnerable ‘eggs’ in one basket had to be spread around for safekeeping and safe breeding. Having them all in one place made the species vulnerable to disease or poaching.

The problem was, of course, that no one actually knew how to drug and translocate animals all that well. Especially animals like white rhinos which weigh 2 tons.

Player persisted. The park was the last stronghold of the white rhino, and having them all in one place made the species vulnerable to disease or poaching. He felt it crucial that some of the 400-odd white rhinos in the park should be spread elsewhere, even to zoos around the world.

Dr Toni Harthoorn, based in East Africa, had helped tranquilise and move seven black rhinos during Operation Noah, part of an effort to save 6 000 wild animals as the Zambezi waters rose and created Lake Kariba in 1960.

He was as close to an expert as there was, and Harthoorn came out to help kickstart the process. By 1966, this specialised team had moved 282 white rhinos to parks around southern Africa and another 63 to zoos around the world. The species’ survival, as far as possible, was ensured.

White rhino numbers have risen slowly to nearly 20 000 in southern Africa today, most of them in South Africa. It would be great to stop here, a happy ending. But alas….

Category: Wildlife

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