Science Interviews

Interview

Sun, 5th Apr 2009

Protecting The Black Rhino

Jed Bird, Addo National Elephant Reserve

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Jed - I’m on a sort of voluntary basis monitoring the black rhino population for the park. I’ve been doing so for the last four and a half years now. Recently last year we started a research project on the rhino to try and find out a little bit more about them form a hormone point of view. We’re situated in the Eastern Cape, 70km inland from Port Elizabeth (a very diverse area) that is probably one of the leaders in black rhino conservation.  We sit now with over 70% of this particular subspecies of black rhino that’s in the park.

Black Rhino at Taronga zoo, Sydney, AustraliaChris - Tell us about the differences between black and white rhinos.

Jed - There’s obviously nothing to do with colour. One is no more black than the other one is white. When the Dutch settlers landed in the Cape here they named all white rhino the wyd renoster – that’s the Swahili for grazing rhino. We interpreted that ‘wyd’ as white. We then discovered a second species called the black rhino.

Chris - Because you had a white rhino you called it black?

Jed - Exactly, yeah. The black rhino is a lot smaller, about half the size of a white rhino. It’s got a pointy lip as opposed to a square lip suitable for browsing. The feed mainly on leaves and twigs and things like that.

Chris What about numbers?

Jed - that’s the drastic part. White rhino numbers dropped to about 120 individuals in the tull. Through great conservation efforts in the tull their numbers have been brought back. There’s about 15,000 now to date. With black rhino, black rhino number dropped to about 2000 animals and ware sitting now at about 4700.

Chris - Why are they threatened?

Jed - Poaching. Poaching and habitat destruction. To give you an idea of how the numbers dropped if you look at the period between 1970 and 1992 Africa lost 96% of all its rhino to poaching. It’s seen as an aphrodisiac, the rhino horn. The main demand for it is in the Yemen tradition. When boys go from boyhood to manhood a status symbol would be to have a dagger with a handle made from rhino horn. I forget the exact dates but it was a period of 10-12 years, 22.5 tonnes of rhino horn entered Yemen which amounts to about 7000 rhino that died as a result of that. That only met 17% of the demand for rhino horn for these purposes.

Chris - What are you trying to do to stop them? I don’t just mean stop the poaching but stop the decline so we don’t lose another species?

Jed - The key now is to create this habitat for them. The research we’re doing is trying to understand a bit more about their breeding biology and try to understand what are the most ideal circumstances for this animal to breed in and try and boost their breeding numbers. What we’re doing at the moment is busy validating the use of field kits – progestogen and androgen and corticosteroid to try and monitor those hormones. How we do it is we extract it from the dung. It’s not invasive: we actually don’t even need to see the animal. What we do is we use camera traps. Rhino being like they are they use particular spots to defecate. There’re usually scrapings that they often return to. We put a camera up at these scrapings the animal will return, do its business. We can then identify the animal, collect the dung and run it. If it’s a bull we’ll test its testosterone levels and its corticosteroid levels. If it’s the female we’ll test the progestogen. We can tell if it’s pregnant. We can see if the bull’s testosterone levels are high and how stressed the animal is.

Chris - We’re going to head out into the bush to take a look at some of these sites and find out what it actually looks like on the ground.

Jed - We’ve just come out into the park. We’re in an area that is one of the main waterholes used by quite a few animals or rhino in this area. We’re lucky enough to stumble across some really fresh spore here. If you have a look you can see the typical three toes. That gives you an idea straight away what this is. This is black rhino, (a) I know this because there’s no white rhino in that area of the park. What distinguishes this is that white rhino spore would be a lot larger than this. At the heel of the spore here white rhino would leave a much bigger indentation. You can see the black rhino is pretty flat there.

Chris - Three toes, about the size of your outstretched hand if you put your hand across it. Can you get some indication as to the size of this animal from the size of the footprint? With elephants you can draw around the whole footprint and it gives you some indication as to how tall the animal is.

Jed - yeah. There’s a sort of rule of thumb if you put your hand across the spore like this. An adult animal will be slightly wider than your hand so you’re looking at about 20-22 centimetres. This is a subadult animal. As you can see my hand fits quite easily over the spore. I do know there is a young male moving around in this area. He’s 5.5 years old. I’m hazarding a guess this is more than likely this individual.

Chris - Would this be a good site to do the kind of monitoring exercises you’re doing here in the park  -setting up cameras to watch what the animals do?

Jed - This is a perfect site. As I say these game paths that lead down to the water hole obviously channel animals to this area. They’ll follow these paths down to the water hole. If rhino come down here they sort of congregate in this area and move down the hill. This is a typical area where we would put the camera. It’s where these paths cross or where they cross a road. That’s typically a point where these rhino will either urinate or hopefully defecate. That’s when we’d put up a camera trap. The animal would come past, do its business – we’ll get a series of photographs, see the notches on its ears and be able to identify it and then start analysing the data for it. Let’s just follow the spore for a bit and see if we come across any dung.

Chris - While we’re out here in the bush in the middle of nowhere this is a wild animal park. Are there any predators here that might see a human as quite tasty?

Jed - I wouldn’t say as tasty but there are a few predators.

Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), picture taken at Ngorongoro Conservation Area, TanzaniaChris - Speak for yourself.

Jed - There are a few predators out there. There are lion in the park, leopards and smaller carnivores called the spotted cat, things like that.

Chris - There’s some pretty big bones we’ve just seen. What were they?

Jed - That was the remains of an eland. I don’t know what killed it – more than likely a lion or hyena to bring down something that big. If you have a look here we’ve got some rhino dung which looks pretty much like any large herbivore dung. The secret lies here if you break it open. Black rhino is a set of browsers. They’ll walk up to a bush if they pass a branch into the mouth of that prehensile lip of theirs – the way that their molars are aligned they bite things off at a 45 degree angle. If you ever question what animal this could be just break the dung open. You’ll see twigs – that’ll eliminate white rhino. White rhino just eat grass. Then you could be sitting with the situation – is this elephant or black rhino? Just simply look for a couple of twigs broken off at 45 degree. That tells you straight away this is black rhino.

Chris - It’s pretty cunning that you can noninvasively go to the dung and measure these hormone levels. What are they telling you? Why is that important?

Jed - What we’re doing here is comparing three different sections of the park. The three sections that have rhino in them which is the Addo section, Inyati section and the Darlington section. These have the same population size in each section but the variables differ from a case of elephant numbers, predation in the specific sections and tourism numbers. The hypothesis is that with a higher stress level they’re not going to breed at an optimum level. We want to see basically what is the perfect scenario for these animals to live in realistically. It’d be great to put a rhino and even if no one gets to see them and they’ll probably breed perfectly. In reality if you want to conserve these animals people want to see them. They want to know a bit more about them. We just want to know what levels of impact these animals can take and what levels of impact from an elephant point of view they can take.

Chris - You need people to come and see the animals, eco tourism because that brings revenue to the park, it beings revenue to the region. That means that people then respect the animals because they have a commercial value other than just for poaching. At the same time you need to make  sure the animals aren’t being so stressed they’re not going to breed.

Jed - Exactly. It’s a fine line. You’ve got to keep that balance like everything. As long as these animals are being seen more’s going to be known about them. That’s the way of conserving.

Chris - Have you got any result yet or are you still gathering the data and there’s no trends emerged yet?

Jed - We’ve gathered quite a lot of data. Basically what we can see now is when an animal is coming into oestrus for the first time you can tell when an animal is pregnant or when she’s about to give birth because the progesterone levels drop prior to birth. We can also see on bulls particularly when they’re most aggressive or when they’ve got the highest levels of testosterone. We’ve found the testosterone levels increase from birth to the age of about 7-8 years old and plateau. They drop off at about 21 years old.

Chris - What about the interaction with the viewing public? Have you got any handle on that and how the stress of having people and vehicles passing nearby affects the animals?

Jed - Definitely. Just from monitoring and seeing their movements you can definitely see the trend where there’s movements in the section. It’s the public section where there’s quite an intricate road network and there’s a lot of vehicles driving around. You can see the time of day these animals are moving and the areas that these animals are moving. They do tend to avoid roads and avoid vehicles and people.

Chris - Is it something they could get used to?

Jed - Most definitely. That’s what I was getting at. You can’t expect to put animals into an area that they never get seen. Realistically you have to monitor them anyway. If you don’t see people or vehicles for six months, a year, and then all of a sudden they do then their stress levels are going to rocket. If they get accustomed to it to a certain degree it balances. To a certain degree they won’t get as stressed when they do hear a vehicle or do smell people.  

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