Kruger Park 2017 Rhino Cen­sus

Tourism Tattler - - EDITORIAL - Bonné de Bod. By About the au­thor: An award-win­ning tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter and film­maker, Bonné de Bod, is well-known for her in-depth re­port­ing on wildlife and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. For nearly a decade, Bonné has pre­sented in both Afrikaans and English on

Su­san and I have been work­ing on an anti-poach­ing rhino fea­ture doc­u­men­tary ti­tled STROOP, which is due for re­lease in early 2018, and we were de­lighted with this op­por­tu­nity as it was the first time we had been given per­mis­sion to ob­serve the rhino cen­sus.

The count­ing pro­ce­dure

It was in­cred­i­ble to wit­ness and to bet­ter un­der­stand the cen­sus process. You might think that you go up in a he­li­copter, count the rhinos and the job is done; but it's a lot more com­pli­cated than that. I have tried to ob­serve and film this cen­sus count for four years and have begged SANParks ev­ery year to al­low me to in­ter­view the sci­en­tists in­volved and see how it's done.

Ob­vi­ously, it's a sen­si­tive thing, not only count­ing the rhinos but wit­ness­ing their lo­ca­tion and con­cen­tra­tions in the park. I am fa­mil­iar with cen­sus count­ing of an­i­mals but even so, I spent a few weeks go­ing through re­search pa­pers and sci­en­tific jour­nals to try and get my head around the sci­en­tific as­pect of it all, which was ar­du­ous be­cause what it re­ally en­tails is us­ing a sci­en­tific for­mula to work out how many rhinos there are.

For­tu­nately, I had the STROOP re­search team help­ing me get to grips with it and it did even­tu­ally all come to­gether af­ter a lot of read­ing, analysing and talk­ing to a few sci­en­tists. Dr Sam Fer­reira is the lead sci­en­tist be­hind the count­ing of rhinos in Kruger, he is the large mam­mal ecol­o­gist for SANParks and he heads up a team of ob­servers – the peo­ple do­ing the ac­tual count­ing. So three to four ob­servers in a he­li­copter do the ac­tual phys­i­cal count­ing, and then these re­sults get fed back to Dr Fer­reira who uses this set for­mula to work out the to­tal num­ber of rhinos in the park. Rather com­pli­cated but great to fi­nally be able to see it in ac­tion af­ter read­ing all those dry re­search jour­nals!

The method and for­mula

Ob­vi­ously, a small re­serve or farm with a few an­i­mals can count a small num­ber by walk­ing or driv­ing around, but in the Kruger, to­tal counts were done up un­til the late 1990s, mean­ing that the whole of the park was counted, from top to bot­tom. But we all know that it's a mas­sive area so you can imag­ine the time and money that went into a cen­sus like that and for some years the cen­sus wasn't done at all be­cause of these large-scale fac­tors where the weather had to be per­fect. But a to­tal count doesn't mean you will count the ex­act num­ber of rhinos be­cause a to­tal count will give you a neg­a­tive bias. You will never see and there­fore never count all the rhinos in the park be­cause they might be ly­ing down or walk­ing in the bush line and not ob­served. This means there are clear er­rors or bi­ases that one has to con­sider. So sci­en­tists have fig­ured out that it's a far bet­ter spend of money and time to do a min­i­mum per­cent­age of the park us­ing a method and for­mula which they feel give bet­ter re­sults.

The spe­cific count­ing method that SANParks and Dr Fer­reira feel is the best for Kruger is called the ‘Block-count­ing method' and the peer­re­viewed sci­en­tific pa­pers I thor­oughly re­searched, gives a model where you can count be­tween 40 -50 per­cent of the park which will then give a good es­ti­mate of ac­tual num­bers. So what Dr Fer­reira does is to as­sign var­i­ous blocks through­out the park which are 3x3 kilo­me­tres and then the ob­servers search that block very in­tensely from the air. Last year they cov­ered 41 per­cent of the park and Dr Fer­reira ad­vised that this year they counted 50 per­cent.

Also in­ter­est­ing is the fly­ing method. The pi­lot do­ing a block-count must fly the blocks in a very struc­tured way, fly­ing nar­row strips less than 200 me­tres apart. When the he­li­copter gets to the edge of the block the pi­lot doesn't just sim­ply turn around and fly back close to that strip, they need to fly fur­ther away on the edge, worked out to a set num­ber so when they fly back down, no dou­ble count­ing of rhinos hap­pens.

For this, the sci­en­tists have also worked in a bias per­cent­age, again done sci­en­tif­i­cally. But whether you use to­tal or block count­ing one will never get an ex­act num­ber of rhinos, and we also have to bear in mind that it's an es­ti­mate and even cov­er­ing only 41-50 per­cent of the park costs around R1mil­lion and that cost doesn't even cover the time of the ob­servers, sci­en­tists or pi­lots.

Why the cen­sus mat­ters

Firstly for man­age­ment prac­tices, you want the meta-pop­u­la­tions (the smaller pop­u­la­tions within the to­tal pop­u­la­tion) to in­ter­act, dis­perse, breed and ul­ti­mately grow. Some­times they do this on their own and some­times you need to as­sist by mov­ing rhinos from one area into another within the park sys­tem. In or­der to do this, one needs to know how many rhinos there are at any given time. There is also the need to know and un­der­stand the num­ber of live rhinos in the park be­cause of the poach­ing cri­sis and how this im­pacts the pop­u­la­tion. We can­not just be left know­ing how many rhinos are poached - we must also know how healthy our liv­ing pop­u­la­tion is in terms of this ter­ri­ble cri­sis.

Many NGOs and ac­tivists are ques­tion­ing the num­ber of rhinos left in the park, and we hear about it all the time from tourists vis­it­ing the park who say they aren't see­ing rhinos any­more. There also some crit­ics out there, sci­en­tists, pi­lots, vets, who are ques­tion­ing the num­ber and method used in the park, and many of them say that the num­ber of liv­ing rhinos left in the park is an ex­ag­ger­ated num­ber. So quite a con­tentious is­sue although not the main rea­son why SANParks does the cen­sus. But they have told me that they hope be­ing so trans­par­ent about the count­ing method used will ad­dress peo­ple's con­cerns.


Rhino num­bers have been drop­ping year on year. Last year's fig­ure was an es­ti­mate of be­tween 6 649 and 7 830 rhinos in Kruger for 2016 which was a 16-20 per­cent drop from the pre­vi­ous year's num­bers. These are last year's re­sults, so we still need to wait for the 2017 num­bers which are still be­ing col­lected. We ex­pect the re­sults to be re­leased by gov­ern­ment early next year when they do their an­nual re­view re­port.

To mark World Rhino Day (22 Septem­ber), fel­low film­maker Su­san Scott and I were granted ex­clu­sive ac­cess to the 2017 Rhino Cen­sus, which took place in South Africa’s Kruger Na­tional Park. Here’s what we saw and learnt.

SANParks Re­gional Ecol­o­gist Cathy Greaver stor­ing in­for­ma­tion re­ceived from one of the ob­servers on board a SANParks he­li­copter dur­ing the rhino cen­sus of 2017 in the Kruger Na­tional Park. Not only are the hum­bers of rhino spot­ted from the air given to...

SANParks Re­gional Ecol­o­gist Cathy Greaver dis­cussing the block count­ing method with tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter Bonné de Bod. Im­age © Su­san Scott.

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