National Geographic: Triumphant Rhino Transfer Ends in Tragic Conservator Death
Rare black rhinos were recently reintroduced into Rwanda’s iconic national park. Tragically, one has killed a man who was helping protect them.
By Laurel Neme
On Wednesday, one of the protectors of Rwanda’s newly reintroduced black rhinos was killed by one of them on June 7 while monitoring the animals.
"It is with utmost regret that I inform you that Krisztián Gyöngyi was killed this morning by a rhinoceros in Akagera National Park in Rwanda while out tracking animals in the park,” Peter Fearnhead, chief executive officer of the conservation nonprofit African Parks, said in a statement. Gyöngyi, who had more than five years experience monitoring and conserving rhinos in Malawi, was on the ground training rangers how to track and protect them. He was also instrumental in supporting the reintroduction of rhinos into Rwanda.
The country never had many of the behemoths—no more than 90 decades ago—and none have been seen since 2007. That all changed in May, when 18 critically endangered Eastern black rhinos were airlifted from South Africa to Rwanda’s Akagera National Park. The initiative was led by African Parks and the Rwandan government.
It’s the latest step in a years-long effort to resuscitate Akagera, one of Africa’s oldest parks, which has had a history of poaching and civil war. Staff fled during the 1994 genocide, and when it ended, refugees needing land flooded into the park with their cattle.
The government reasserted control over Akagera in 1997 but didn’t expel the settlers. Instead it cut the park’s area by more than half, from 965 to a 433-square-mile, with much of its savanna land reallocated for farms and grazing. Despite that shrinkage, Akagera continued to struggle because of poor management, continuing settler encroachment, and illegal hunting.
In Africa rhinos are the victims of ruthless poaching to supply Asian markets with their horns, used for traditional cures, as a party drug, and to boost male potency. (No scientific evidence exists for its efficacy.) In South Africa alone three rhinos are killed each day.
In 2010 the Rwandan government decided that the best way to help Akagera was to bring in African Parks, which manages national parks and protected areas in eight countries in partnership with governments.
Since then animal populations in the park have increased by more than 50 percent, according to a 2015 aerial census, and poaching has dropped, thanks to better enforcement and improved relations with surrounding communities.
With the situation stabilized, seven lions were brought to Akagera from South Africa in 2015. Tourism jumped, and last summer the lions gave birth to the first cubs in Rwanda in almost 20 years. Lion numbers now stand at 19.
"We're looking forward to the same success with this founder population of rhinos," says African Parks’s Jes Gruner, who’s currently managing Akagera.
The logistics of the rhino transfer were complex. It started with selecting the rhino “founders”—youngish and fit animals most likely to thrive after the transfer and breed successfully.
Using genetic analysis to ensure as much diversity as possible, African Parks selected 8 males and 10 females, including one with her 18-month-old calf. The rhinos were kept in enclosures and watched closely for a few days to make sure they would adapt well before being set loose in the park, where staff continue to monitor them.
“There’s a magic number and a magic proportion” to starting a new population from scratch in a new habitat, explains wildlife filmmaker and National Geographic explorer Dereck Joubert. Joubert and his wife, Beverly, are leading the translocation of a hundred rhinos from South Africa, where poaching is rife, to the safe haven of neighboring Botswana.
MAKING AKAGERA SAFE FOR RHINOS
Because of the poaching threat, African Parks beefed up security in Akagera before bringing the rhinos in. With financial help from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, dozens of rangers were given advanced training on the ground with counterparts in Zimbabwe and Malawi in monitoring and tracking rhinos.
African Parks also increased the number of attendants who around the clock guard the park’s boundary fence to spot intrusions. A helicopter is now on standby to deploy on an emergency basis and provide aerial surveillance and support. And a canine tracking team is at the ready to pursue and apprehend poachers.
African Parks has been building public support for the park. Of the 36,000 visitors to Akagera last year, more than half were Rwandans. Entry fees for Rwandans are kept low, and each year through a special program the park brings in 1,500 schoolchildren and 500 adults so they can appreciate the beauty of the place for themselves.
The park also gives free entry to other local groups. Already 6,000 kids and 2,000 adults from nearby communities have stopped in for a look.
The efforts are paying off. In 2016 Akagera generated $1.4 million in tourist revenue, a seven-fold increase from the $200,000 in 2010. A portion of the entry fees goes toward area schools, health clinics, and roads.
Newfound interest in Akagera, Gruner says, is in turn bolstering security, making people less likely to illegally hunt in the park, and it’s fostering a network of “informants” who report poachers.
“We want to be the people’s park,” he says.
HOPE FOR A BROADER BENEFIT
Rwanda hopes its rhino reintroduction will go some way toward safeguarding the species as a whole.
“Although poaching is the threat attracting all the attention, not having the right amount of suitable space is just as much of a threat,” notes Cathy Dean, chief executive officer of Save the Rhino International, a U.K.-based organization that supports rhino conservation programs across Africa and Asia.
Rhinos need large areas. Otherwise if food—shrubs and woody plants—is limited, the animals’ health can decline, males will fight more as territories shrink, and breeding will likely suffer. With only some 5,250 black rhinos remaining in the wild, every individual matters, but there’s particular concern over the Eastern black rhino subspecies, of which fewer than 900 are left.
New areas are also needed because the remaining Eastern black rhinos are highly—and dangerously—concentrated, with 75 percent of them in Kenya. The rest are in Tanzania, and there’s a small breeding group on a ranch in South Africa. Such concentration means that intense poaching or disease could kill off a major part of the whole population.
Kenya recognized that risk in its 2012 to 2016 conservation and management strategy for black rhinos, which said that “secure new areas are urgently required” and urged “restocking former free ranging areas.”
Rwanda is doing exactly that by trying to reestablish a viable population of black rhinos and expand their habitat.
And, crucially, Rwandans seem to be enthusiastic about it. When the rhinos arrived in Akagera, Gruner says, “people lined the roads to see them. “They take so much pride in the rhinos coming back. It’s a future for the rhinos.”
And that’s what Krisztián Gyöngyi dedicated his life to protect.
Laurel Neme is a freelance writer and author of Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species and Orangutan Houdini. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
Editor's Note, June 9, 2017: The photographs in this story have been updated to show the transfer of the rhinos from South Africa to Rwanda in May.