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Poaching as major threat – Critically endangered black  rhinos fitted

with detection devices to enhance their security in Liwonde National Park

People living adjacent Liwonde National Park use boundary fence materials to make wire snares with aims of catching wild game inside this prime protected area –, including the high security Black Rhino Breeding Sanctuary. Wire snares (set along frequented game paths or near water holes) are a most cruel method of catching mammals, time bombs that can ‘go off’ anytime and cause long misery and death indiscriminately – regardless of species, size, age or gender of the victim. 1-2 strand loops are designed for smaller and medium sized animals (e.g. warthog, bushbuck, impala), 3-5 strand heavy duty nooses for large mammals (e.g. eland, buffalo, rhino or elephant). The poacher returns regularly to check his smartly set “land mines” with hopes of a nice meaty kill awaiting him. If the traumatised animal is strong enough to break free from its anchored predicament (snares are fixed to tree trunks), the already tightened wire noose will still stay deep in the flesh after having severed tendons, muscles, nerves and blood vessels. The outcome is lameness, bleeding, infection, gangrene, loss of body condition and slow agonising death. Often lighter snares set up for bagging smaller game torment large animals - this is called bycatch. Liwonde’s rhino has long been suffering from these accidents, as well as the heavy-duty killer loops or metal traps torturing and killing several of them. Hence, increasing monitoring effectiveness was recognised as imperative to better protect this important population of the rare black rhino.

 

Four major rhino darting operations, co-led by Dr Pete Morkel (Head Veterinarian, IUCN Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group),  and Krisz Gyöngyi (Rhino Monitoring and Research Ecologist) took place in LNP in November 2012, as well as in June, August and November of 2013. Our team has also been busy with rescue operations mounted to save injured/snared rhinos five times in the past 10 months. The capture team, founded on a strong team of DNPW rhino trackers, showed stamina and worked hard often in challenging field conditions. VHF transmitters and/or satellite collars fitted now on almost the entire stock, maximise monitoring efficiency of the population in the face of intensifying poaching pressure in the park. This technological support elevated our efforts on a new level. Consequently, better rhino monitoring greatly helps to understand their ecology, providing baseline information for better biological management – crucial for their survival.

 

Great thanks go to the DNPW tracking team as well as to Mr Chris Badger of Central African Wilderness Safaris, Russel Friedman of the Wilderness Wildlife Trust, Mike Labuschagne of IFAW and Mr Bentley Palmer, without whose support this project could not conduct its vital on-going and darting operations. The project is especially grateful to Dr Morkel, Dr Amanda Lee Salb (Veterinarian of the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust), Derek Macpherson (dart gun operator, Cluny Wildlife Trust) and Bruce Carruthers (dart gun operator, private entrepreneur) for their exemplary commitment and professionalism that are always evident from the resolve and time they invest into our capture operations.

05 Dec 2013

Rescuing ‘Rhino Christopher

Hardly had the New Year commenced, when our rhino tracking team found 21 month old Rhino Christopher (still dependent on his mother, Namatunu) with an open and badly swollen ankle injury – inflicted by a poacher’s snare. Dr. Amanda Lee Salb (Lilongwe Wildlife Trust) and Derek Macpherson (Cluny Wildlife Trust) reacted to our emergency call immediately and travelled from the capital city to Liwonde within 24 hours. Their apparent role was to physically and chemically immobilise the injured rhino (using dart gun and drugs) and help us to remove the snare and treat the wound. A strong team of national parks rhino trackers was deployed for the campaign.

 

Our initial confidence has been dwindled a bit after realising the odds we were facing. Finding a juvenile rhino in the middle of the wet season, with rising rivers, limited vehicle access to the sanctuary and with the prevailing vegetation maxima (e.g. maximum leaf coverage, thick and impenetrable thickets) coupled with an extraordinarily alert behaviour of the mother – will not be an easy task. We could not rely on technology either (no detection device on either mother or calf). We were walking incessantly with all necessary equipment covering 14-20km a day. In fact, the operation extended over six weeks with our dart gun operator friends, Amanda, Derek and Bruce swapping one another (determined by their availability). We succeeded in finding the young rhino and his mother 16 times throughout the long operation and even managed to get within darting range. Nonetheless, the always alert mother chose their hiding places in the densest bush clumps, riverine forests and Dalbergia melanoxylon (zebra wood) thickets with the baby concealed behind or under her body. They knew we were after them but had no clue on the upcoming help this persecution was meant to entail.

 

Despite the apparent difficulties in field conditions, our crippled movement effectiveness and the vigilant rhino, the team’s tenacity and tracking expertise paid off:  just before sunset on 19 February, the team crawled very near the browsing Namatunu and Christopher. Amanda had a window of opportunity through the bush, a small surface area on Christopher’s rear right thigh. We needed to treat the calf, but what will the large mother do? After having trotted away together, will she stay beside her anaesthetised calf? Will she run away leaving her son behind? Rhino mothers are extremely caring and loving parents, they won’t lose sight of their babies. Still this is not an a few months old new born, may she let us do the job after all? This was a bit of concern keeping us busy with thinking about various scenarios.  But suddenly, things speeded up and the dart went in.. Penetration! Mother and calf ran off huffing and puffing. After a short induction phase, the Ethorpine stopped the young animal. He was found by Team 1 in a dark overgrown gully of a small muddy stream – alone. Team 2 was called in by radio right away. The vet, coordinating the various tasks for each team member and performing the medical treatment of the animal, was aware that time was not on our side with the sun setting within an hour. A hefty dosage of long acting antibiotics was administered, heart and breathing rate taken, blood oxygen level and body temperature measured, legs pumped, swollen wounds cleansed and sterilised. Ear notches were cut to ease future identification of the animal and a new VHF collar was fitted on a hind foot for better monitoring. As soon as all tasks have been completed, team members walked back from the treatment site and the young black rhino was reversed. Christopher lumbered out of his treatment site, up onto the shallow bank and soon rejoined his mother who was awaiting his appearance from under those close canopies of the muddy gully.  We hope he will never stumble into a wire snare again.

 

20 Feb 2014

© Krisztián Gyöngyi       I

Email: krisz@malawianrhinos.com    I

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