SA’s rhino ranchers lock horns with Creecy
Private breeding has saved species from extinction, they say
● Rhinos would probably be extinct in SA if it were not for private breeders and farmers.
This the view of wildlife experts, economists and private rhino farmers in the wake of a statement by environment, fisheries & forestry minister Barbara Creecy that the country needs to move away from captive breeding operations and instead manage animals more efficiently in game reserves.
Creecy made the remarks at the release of a report from a high-level panel that she convened in 2018 to investigate the management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling of elephants, lions, leopards and rhinos.
“The high-level panel acknowledges private conservation has been more successful than government conservation and is an integral part of keeping rhino alive,” said private rhino owner Derek Lewitton.
“Every rhino in Kruger [Park] was reintroduced from captivity. There is no such thing as a rhino that doesn’t derive from captive breeding because there were only 30 of them left alive in the early 1900s.”
Independent animal consultant Karen Trendler said the main concern around rhino farming is the lack of regulations governing the animals’ welfare and how many could be in a single camp.
“We had started seeing a trend where calves are taken away from the mother at a young age in order to bring her into oestrus and increase her breeding rate,” she said.
“This has implications for the mother because you’re only designed in nature to breed a certain number of times.”
An estimated 9,000 rhinos in SA are privately owned as the number of farmed animals has grown by as much at 500% in the past decade.
Meanwhile, government rhino populations — those in national parks — have declined by as much as 70%.
SANParks admitted recently that Kruger National Park has lost 67% of its rhinos in the past 10 years to poachers and drought. An estimated 2,000 survive in national parks.
Private Rhino Owners Association chair Pelham Jones said the industry is breeding its animals “incredibly well”.
“This is not manipulative breeding — these are free-roaming rhino, out on our reserves,” he said. “Our animals are no different to those in Kruger.”
Privately owned rhinos are also very well protected, he said.
“In 2020, 394 rhinos were poached but only 37 went down on private reserves.”
Jones said the private rhino industry has not done any genetic manipulation or forced breeding.
“It’s a completely natural selection process, as you would find in Kruger.”
Jones took aim at animal welfare groups that oppose private farming without knowing how the industry works.
“The scenario presented is that we are rich white farmers who want to exploit rhino for financial gain,” he said.
“We did not buy a rhino 30 years ago because we wanted to get into the rhino-horn trade. We got our rhino for eco-tourism and conservation purposes.”
Lewitton said the issues stacked against rhino farmers range from “petty jealousies” to lingering racial animus from SA’s past.
“This often gets interwoven into these conversations, not because it belongs but because it hasn’t been addressed more comprehensively in South African society.”
Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, a research fellow at the Oxford Martin Program on Wildlife Trade, said successful conservation is about giving people the right incentives to look after wildlands and wildlife.
“They have to provide value relative to competing forms of land use, which is typically crop agriculture or livestock.”
He said Southern Africa’s dry savanna is naturally better suited to wildlife ranching than any other form of land use.
The economic uses of game include wildlife tourism, recreational hunting and meat production.
“If you manage it correctly, you can do all three on the same piece of land,” he said. “And then you’ve got multiple different species making very efficient use of everything that’s there.”
As for keeping rhino cows in oestrus, Trendler agreed that a cow might lose two or three calves to predators in the wild, but said that to repeatedly take those calves away would have a “massive impact” on her body.
Trendler said she had also been approached by some rhino breeders who wanted to bring in volunteers to look after the calves. “While a hand-reared rhino is not dangerous [in the way that a hand-reared lion is] there are still welfare and other ramifications.” The best way to conserve a species is in its natural habitat, she said.