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How a blind black rhino became an ambassador for his species (South Africa)

By June 4, 2020Conservation
Jacob Dykes, Geographical  | June 2, 2020

Read the original story here.

In the Eastern Cape of South Africa, Munu – a blind black rhino – has become an ambassador for his species, opening the world’s eyes to the critical conservation philosophy that ‘every rhino matters’

On 9 January 2018, rangers working at a South African National Park discovered a disoriented black rhino, lost and walking in circles. After safely tranquillising him, an ophthalmic surgeon confirmed that Munu had experienced two detached retinas, blinding him after disputes with other rhinos over territory and females on the reserve.

As a member of a dwindling population of south-western black rhino, lead conservationist Brett Barlow and a team from South Africa National Parks (SANparks), opted to permanently house and protect Munu.

With assistance from The White Lion Foundation, Munu was relocated to a specialised facility at Mantis Founder’s Lodge in South Africa in August 2019. The efforts to protect Munu are underscored by a conservation philosophy that runs deep in the blood of conservationists in the Eastern Cape.

‘Many people said “let nature take its course, Munu has gone blind naturally – let the lions have him”,’ says Barlow. ‘With the population of the south-western subspecies of black rhino so low, we knew [Munu’s protection] was a unique opportunity.’

Before arriving at Founder’s Lodge, Barlow carefully designed a specialised enclosure, where the rhino could thrive. ‘When we first saw Munu, we noticed that he was walking in clockwise circles. His left eye must have gone blind first. We designed his enclosure like the spoke of a wheel, where he could maximise the use of his space.’ Since becoming acclimatised at Founder’s Lodge, Munu is now able to leave his pen to browse a larger, five hectare area.

Now with 24-hour surveillance, monitoring systems donated by FLIR cameras have become Munu’s eyes, protecting him from the poaching threat that has scourged the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

A Species with a Turbulent History

Munu is one of the south-western subspecies of black rhinoceros. Black rhinos are the smaller of the two African rhino species, the most notable difference being their more hooked upper lips and higher posture than the white rhino.

During the 20th century, Africa’s black rhino population was ravaged for game by European hunters and settlers. Between 1960 and 1995, black rhino numbers dropped by a startling 98 per cent, from 65,000 in the early 1970s, to a historic low of fewer than 2,500 individuals in 1995.

Since the population lows of the mid-90s, conservation efforts have increased and African black rhino numbers have more than doubled, reaching an estimated 5,630 by the end of 2018. There are now three remaining subspecies of black rhino; Diceros bicornis bicornis (south-western black rhino, 2018 African population 2,188), Diceros bicornis michaeli (south-central black rhino, 2018 African population 2,305), and Diceros bicornis minor (eastern black rhino, 2018 African population 1,044).

The recent growth in black rhino populations should not mask the threat that the species, conservationists and governments have all battled with over the last two decades. Like white rhinos, black rhinos continue to face the threat of Asian demand for their horns. Rhino horn has two main uses: traditional Chinese medicine and ornamental use. Rhino horn has become a highly prized material for making carved high-status items such as bowls and bangles, and is also used to produce ornately carved handles for ceremonial daggers in Yemen and some Middle Eastern countries. In 2018, across all species and sub-species, 769 rhinos were killed for their horn in South Africa alone. In 2019, this fell to 594 individuals – a vast improvement from a peak of 1,215 in 2014.

Across the whole of Africa, numbers of black rhino killed peaked in 2015, with 205 individuals killed for their horns – 89 members of Munu’s subspecies, the south-western black rhino, were killed in Namibia alone during 2015. Conversely, South Africa’s successful monitoring and conservation schemes have spared the south-western subspecies from the hands of poachers, with no recorded deaths in South Africa across the last decade.

The most notable increases in black rhino numbers have occurred in countries actively investing in conservation programmes, where monitoring is heightened and law enforcement stricter. In 2017, four black rhino range states conserved the majority (93.9 per cent) of remaining wild black rhino (South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya).

A Simple and Dedicated Conservation Philosophy

South Africa’s population of south-western black rhinos reached 254 at the last official count, with only 80 males – a dangerously low breeding population. The sub-species is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. In a bid to save these rare animals conservationists are drawing on a philosophy first pioneered by one of South Africa’s champion conservationists.

Following his conservation work in the 1960s, Dr Ian Player is now heralded as the saviour of the southern white rhino – a cousin of the south-western black rhino. In the 1950s and 1960s, the influx of European travellers decimated both South Africa’s white and black rhino populations. With fewer than 100 southern white rhino individuals remaining in the mid-60s, a breeding program was established with the remaining individuals at the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve. From this precious stock, Dr Ian Player initiated ‘Operation Rhino’ – a project that relocated the remaining southern white rhinos to other locations across South Africa. From one nuclear location, Player’s work broadened the range of breeding programmes across South Africa’s private reserves, setting the stage for the southern white rhino population to rebound to the ~18,000 individuals that exist today.

‘Dr Ian Player’s philosophy – that every rhino matters – drove our efforts to protect Munu,’ says Barlow. He saw the opportunity for Munu to participate in breeding programmes to create new black rhino bloodlines in South Africa. ‘If Munu hadn’t had become blind, he would have continued to be a prime breeder for the next 10-12 years,’ says Barlow. By protecting him, conservationists hope to add to the genetic diversity of the sub-species. ‘We hope that successful breeding between Munu and a female from a different area will lead to offspring that could then be donated to SANparks reserves – introducing a valuable new bloodline,’ says Barlow.

An Ambassador for His Species

Beyond visions of successful breeding programs, Munu is already becoming an ambassador for the continued protection of rhinos across Africa.

‘When Munu became acclimatised at Mantis Founder’s Lodge, we recognised that people could get as near as a metre away from him. This is a rare opportunity for ambassadorship and education,’ says Barlow. Conservationists have launched a community outreach project where local schoolchildren from the neighbouring town of Paterson can come and see Munu, to develop an early-life interest in the natural world. ‘Building this stewardship in local children is critical to saving the species – through education, the next generation can be deterred from poaching and become guardians of the nature that they neighbour,’ says Barlow.

Beyond the Eastern Cape, Munu and Barlow have been getting children across the world invested in species protection: ‘through Zoom, a class in snowy Canada can see me, a little South African guy with khaki shorts, standing next to a bull black rhino. They ask questions about the species and Munu’s protection, learning about the natural world and the need to protect it.’

Conservationists are also hopeful that Munu will serve as an icon to unite a global community of people invested in rhino protection. The FLIR camera systems that have become Munu’s eyes are being adapted into a streaming service where anyone from around the world can observe Munu’s behaviour. ‘We’re hoping that a global community will pull together to become Munu’s security guards,’ says Barlow.

A Tender Commitment

Barlow’s tender relationship with Munu the blind rhino is reminiscent of historic ambassadors for other beloved rhinos. On 19 March 2019, the world lost Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, who spent a decade under 24-hour armed surveillance at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Sudan’s isolation as the last male of his sub-species captured the world’s attention, leaving a potent conservation legacy. Wildlife lovers were deeply stirred by the commitment of Joseph Wachira, one of Sudan’s chief keepers. Images of their heads stooped together – the last hulking behemoth, bowed in affection to his passionate steward – serve to remind us of our duty to protect every individual of an endangered species, as if it were the last.

Now, continuing Dr Ian Player’s philosophy that ‘every rhino matters’, Barlow and the team at Mantis Founder’s Lodge have built not just a home for one blind black rhino; they’ve created a breeding programme, continued a conservation legacy, and erected a stage for a new ambassador for the rhino protection movement.