Rhino Conservation on the up in Botswana

By Kelly 17 July 2018

As safari specialists, one question we are often asked is, ‘Will I see all of the Big Five?’ (For those not in the know, the Big Five are lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino.) The answer, I’m afraid, is not clear cut. Firstly, as many a safari goer will know all too well, nothing is ever guaranteed in the bush. Secondly and more importantly, it depends on where you want to go. Not all parks and reserves, or indeed countries, are home to all of the much-sought-after Big Five species.

Until recently, Botswana, a nation that is famed for the sheer beauty and diversity of its natural environment, was one such country. It has elephant aplenty, a healthy lion and leopard population, and great buffalo numbers too, but sadly there are no rhino, so visitors have had to settle for a possible four out of five. However, on my recent trip to Botswana, I was privileged to witness first hand that spotting five out of five is now a very real, not to mention very welcome, possibility!

Traditionally, in centuries past, Botswana was home to solid concentrations of both black and white rhino, with reports from the 1850s loosely estimating tens of thousands of both species in existence. Unfortunately, large-scale hunting and poaching in the late nineteenth century and throughout the whole of the twentieth century led to their near extinction. According to Rhino Conservation Botswana (RCB), by 1992, black rhino were classified as ‘locally extinct’ and a population survey counted only 19 white rhinos left in the country. These last survivors of a once-mighty population were rounded up and moved to sanctuaries where they could be protected, with the hope that one day they could be released back into the wild. At the same time, the Botswana Defence Force and the Department of Wildlife set about creating one of Africa’s finest anti-poaching units, laying the foundations that would help to achieve this goal.

In 1999, Wilderness Safaris, in conjunction with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks and the Botswana Government, launched the Botswana Rhino Reintroduction Project, with the aim of repopulating carefully selected parts of the Okavango Delta with both black and white rhino. The project was ambitious yet well thought out, and it included plans not just for the relocation but also for the long-term monitoring protection of the species – this was the start of a huge collaborative effort to try to prevent the total extinction of one of Africa’s most beautiful creatures.

So, how are they doing? Well, in 2001, the first four white rhinos arrived in Botswana, followed two years later by four black rhinos, the first to set foot on Botswana soil in 18 years. These first eight were to be followed by more in the following years. There were early setbacks, such as two of the rhinos being poached in 2003. Intensive investigations were conducted, and the poachers were caught – Botswana was sending a clear message that poaching would not be tolerated. There were successes too. For example, in 2004, tiny rhino tracks were found on Chief’s Island. These belonged to Dimpho, meaning ‘Many Gifts’ – she was the first of many white rhino calves to be born over the next years. In 2009, there was another very significant patter of tiny hooves, when a monitoring team discovered six-month-old Boipuso, or ‘Independence’, the first black rhino calf to be born.

In the years since 2001, slow but stable populations of both black and white rhino have been growing in Botswana. Other safari operators have joined the fight too. After many years of careful planning, &Beyond and Great Plains Conservation are also working with the Botswana Government, having pledged to reintroduce a further 100 rhinos into the Okavango. This has been a highly successful initiative, with 77 rhinos already relocated and the remaining 23 scheduled to move this year.

So, how many rhino are there in Botswana? Truthfully no one is really sure, as it is not something that those in the know are keen to advertise. We do know the long-term goal – one day, Botswana will support and protect between five and ten thousand rhinos in the wild. All I can say is that I have been on hundreds of safaris, and I’ve been lucky enough to see rhino on quite a few occasions, but nothing has felt as special as my recent sightings in the Okavango Delta. I hope that, in years to come, many more people will have the privilege of seeing these amazing animals back in their rightful home.

Today Botswana is seen as a country in which rhino have a safe haven, an astonishing feat that has taken enormous effort to achieve – the country should feel very proud.

If you’d like more information on planning a rhino-focused safari to Botswana, feel free to call us on +44 (0)20 8547 2305 or send us an email at [email protected]