Dvůr Králové Zoo spearheading international efforts to restore black rhinos to Rwanda

Photo: archive of Dvůr Králové Zoo

Dvůr Králové Zoo is at the centre of an international effort to restore black rhinos to Rwanda, where the entire rhino population was wiped out in the aftermath of the 1990 civil war. At a time when there are only about 900 black rhinos left in the wild the project is of immense significance to the future of the species. I spoke to Dvůr Králové Zoo’s special projects coordinator Jan Stejskal about what the project will involve.

Photo: archive of Dvůr Králové Zoo
“In the second half of June we are planning to send five black rhinos to Rwanda and the reason why we are doing this is that Rwanda lost all its rhinos in 2007 as a result of the civil war in the 1990s. When the last rhino was sighted in Rwanda, about twelve years ago, the security situation for them was not good, but it has since improved considerably. They lived in Akagera National Park which is now managed by an NGO called African Parks. The NGO concluded an agreement with the Rwandan Development Board, which is a governmental body responsible for the development of Rwanda and from 2010 the situation in the park really improved and we can now regard it as a safe place for rhinos.

"So what happened next was that Rwanda acquired rhinos from South Africa, altogether 18 rhinos which were brought to the country in 2017. However these rhinos originated from a small genetic pool and if you want to have a sustainable population then it is necessary to enhance the genetic variability of the founders of the population.

“Now European zoos breed black rhinos very well and we can afford to send some animals back to Africa. The coordinator of the breeding program in Europe, Mark Pilgrim, CEO of Chester Zoo, decided it was time to help Rwanda establish a new population by sending five rhinos from the European breeding program.”

So where are they from, these five rhinos?

“Three out of the five that are being sent were born in Dvůr Králové’s Safari Park, two females and one male, another was brought here from Flamingoland in the UK and the fifth came to us from Ree Park in Denmark.”

So they are now in Dvůr Králove Zoo?

Jan Stejskal,  photo: archive of Jan Stejskal
“Yes, the rhinos from the UK and Denmark were brought here already in November of last year because the rhinos need to be prepared for the journey to Rwanda and it is better if they know each other before the transport. And for that they need months, weeks might be sufficient, but months is much better. So during the winter months we gradually brought them into closer contact –first in pens and later when the weather improved, even in outside enclosures. Three of the rhinos are of a younger age and two are older, so we brought the younger ones into contact, but with the older ones we have to be more careful, because they can breed already and we do not want to have a pregnant female already on the journey.”

And what kind of conditions will they have in Akagera National Park?

“It is actually a perfect place for black rhinos. Since we are sending our animals we wanted to see the place. We first visited Akagera National Park in 2016 and one of our main concerns was how things stood with security. We saw the rangers that they deploy, we saw the commitment from the staff and we were really impressed. It was even before the rhinos from South Africa were brought and we could see right away that this would be a good place for them.

“As regards the natural environment, I would say it is a perfect place for them, a lot of bushes which gives them lots of places to hide, which they like. The rhinos from South Africa were brought to the southern part of the park, while the rhinos from European zoos will be placed in the northern part.They will have about 3,000 hectares which is quite a large space and it is like a savannah with nice grass, trees and bushes.”

And these rhinos from South Africa, have they started breeding there? What are the chances of your rhinos breeding?

“The rhinos from South Africa are already breeding in Rwanda and I think the chances of our rhinos breeding as well are really high. One of the reasons is that they know each other already from our Safari Park. But it is necessary to say that the rhinos from our zoos will not be exposed immediately to the rhinos from South Africa. What we will do is that we will release the rhinos from Europe into bomas, i.e. smaller enclosures, then they will be released into larger enclosures of about 800 metres long and wide and then, if they do well, they will be released on the whole peninsula. Finally, when we are confident they will be able to cope with the rhinos from South Africa, they will be able to roam the territory of the whole Akagera National Park.”

Black rhino,  photo: archive of Dvůr Králové Zoo
I understand these rhinos from European Zoos have been bred in captivity on average for five generations. Is that why you need to go step by step?

“Yes, but even if it were just two generations, you would need to acclimatize them carefully to a new environment in the wild.”

And within the program you are trying to educate the local community as well, is that right?

“That is true. We sent an advance team of workers to Akagera and together with African Parks which built an education centre there they prepared an educational program for the local communities and especially for the children living in the vicinity of the park.”

I understand there are approximately 900 of these rhinos living in the wild today, is that right?

“You are right, we are talking about the Eastern Black Rhino –in Latin it would be Diceros bicornis michaeli. The exact number would be hard to place, but I think it is about 900 and they live in Kenya, Tanzania and now also in Rwanda.”

How much are they at threat? Are they protected?

“As you can imagine, it is not easy to protect them. The main reason is the demand for rhino horns in Eastern Asia. As regards the rhinos in Rwanda – I do not want to disclose details about the security measures in force – but definitely there are people on the ground who look after the rhinos and if they do not see them for a certain period of time, more people are deployed to look for them, there is intelligence gathering, and there is a very advanced electronic system. We will put transmitters in the horn of each rhino so they will be under 24-hour surveillance.”

What are your ambitions for the project in Rwanda with these five rhinos? What would you consider a success?

“It would be a success if they were to start breeding in Rwanda, and in the foreseeable future if they could be released into the free area of the park and breed even with the rhinos that were brought there from South Africa. But I think the likelihood is it will not be our rhinos that will breed with those from South Africa, but rather their offspring.”

You are also spearheading an international project to try to save the Northern White Rhino, which is practically extinct now – there are just two females left. You are trying to save the species through artificial insemination, so how is that program coming along?

“We announced last July that we are capable of making an embryo of the white rhino and actually, to be quite honest, since then we have been struggling to get permits from the Kenyan authorities to harvest oocytes from the last two Northern White Rhino females that live in Ol Pejeta in Kenya and transport them to Italy. We need to get them to Italy because it is the only laboratory in the world that has so far proved capable of making an embryo from harvested oocytes. So I hope that in the coming months we will have the opportunity to go to Kenya and gather oocytes from these last two females.”

Sudan - the last Northern White Rhino male,  photo: Czech Television
So you haven’t given up hope yet?

“No,no, absolutely no. This is just a bureaucratic obstacle that I hope we will overcome soon and as regards the technical solution to the problem we are now more advanced than we were a year ago.”

Dvůr Králové Zoo has a very successful rhino breeding program and you yourself have worked with rhinos for years. How close to your heart are they?

“I have to say that they are closest to my heart when I see them being released on the plains of Africa. I feel great happiness for them because a new life is opening up to them in the wild. I do not want to say that only rhinos have a place in my heart, but on the other hand, I have spent so much time with them and experienced some very emotional situations with them, like the passing of Sudan, the last Northern White Rhino male in the world, that I must admit that these old creatures who have roamed the planet for millions of years somehow make me think about how we treat Nature and why we show such huge disregard for living things on Planet Earth. So working with rhinos makes me think deeply about the behaviour of humankind.”