Black Rhino Conservation Management Through Science-based Support

Photo Credit: Martin Harvey


The WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP) is one of WWF’s most successful species conservation projects ever. BRREP was established in 2003. Over the past 16 years it has established 11 black rhino populations in private and community reserves in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Limpopo. They were created from founder black rhino populations translocated from provincial parks in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

The project is central to the goal of increasing the population growth of black rhinos, which are listed as critically endangered, with only 2 000 left in South Africa. Black rhinos once numbered more than 100 000 across sub-Saharan Africa, but from the 1960s poaching for their horns decimated their numbers to less than 3%.

The WWF Nedbank Green Trust is supporting the next stage of rhino population management at BRREP through a programme called Black Rhino Conservation Management Through Science-based Support.

Through this project 90% of the DNA samples from all the rhinos in the 11 BRREP populations have already been collected. This enables us to make informed management decisions about when to swap out dominant males or their offspring, and when new genes need to be brought in to maintain genetic diversity. It is also a key tool in rhino horn crime-fighting and anti-poaching work.

The DNA samples are taken at BRREP sites whenever black rhinos are immobilised for medical checks, horn removals or translocations. Another four parks managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife have been added to the project for DNA profiling.

Of the DNA samples collected from the 11 BRREP populations, 80% have been profiled so far. The samples are then submitted to RhODIS – ( the national rhino-DNA-indexing system for black and white rhinos that was initiated by the Veterinary Genetics Lab at the University of Pretoria.

The genetic samples as well as data gleaned from ongoing monitoring at all the project reserves also offer strong insight into black rhino social associations and reproductive behaviour. Male and female black rhinos mature sexually at six or seven years old and can live for up to 35 years.

A black rhino stud book and genetic management plan for each of the BRREP sites are in process and have been reviewed by a number of rhino geneticists with positive feedback. The management plan is the first of its kind for black rhinos.

The WWF Nedbank Green Trust project has also produced a handbook outlining a scientific approach to best-practice rhino management and monitoring approaches in southern Africa. The handbook covers various rhino regions – from the dry, mountainous Kunene region of Namibia to the moist, coastal region of KwaZulu-Natal.