Pongola Game Reserve, a privately owned reserve in northern KwaZulu Natal province where relocated black rhinos are thriving, was the scene of a rhino survival celebration Friday.
After bringing Africa's black rhinos back from the brink of extinction, the global conservation organization WWF celebrated the first decade of its African Rhino Program by inviting more countries to become involved.
Celebrants included government and wildlife representatives, community representatives and ecotourism operators from South Africa, Namibia, Kenya and Zimbabwe, all countries that are now participants in the WWF African Rhino Program.
Also on hand were the directors or deputy directors of the national wildlife services of Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia - countries where WWF is exploring expansion of the successful conservation program.
Africa's savannas once were inhabited by more than a million white and black rhinos. But hunting by European settlers wiped out most of the animals, whose horns are valued for ornamental and medicinal purposes.
The southern white rhino was close to extinction by the late 19th century. Trade in rhino horn peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, when huge quantities were shipped to the lucrative markets of the Middle East and Asia.
Responding to the crisis, both species of African rhino were listed in 1977 in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, which prohibits all international trade of rhino parts and products.
Despite this international legal protection, the black rhino population at its lowest point dipped to 2,400 in 1995. In 1997, there were 8,466 white rhinos and 2,599 black rhinos remaining in the wild.
Today, there are 14,500 white rhinos and nearly 4,000 of the more endangered black rhinos.
Populations of white rhino in South Africa and Swaziland have even been moved to CITES Appendix II which allows strictly regulated trade. In these two countries limited sustainable use options have provided economic incentives for further investment in rhino conservation.
The African Rhino Program uses rhinos as a "flagship species" and "part of a process of ecosystem and landscape conservation, wtih a clear understanding that there are people in the landscape as well,"
explained WWF spokesman Phil Dickie. "The accent has been on growing rhino numbers and spreading rhino populations back into their former range, connecting rhino areas by talking to landowners and taking down fences."
"Rhino conservation in Africa is going from strength to strength," said WWF International's Species program Director Dr. Susan Lieberman. "But poaching, illegal trade, and unplanned development remain significant problems across the rhinos' range and there is no room for complacency."
Although WWF has worked on rhino conservation throughout its 45 year history, the African Rhino Program has an integrated approach that has been successful. Working through field projects, it has combined action at every level from local communities to global policy.
One striking, if unanticipated, indicator of the success of the program is that land prices immediately increase in areas where rhinos are re-introduced through a range expansion program, WWF has found.