PHOTOS: A fitting, natural home

One of the five Eastern Black Rhinos that were transported from Europe to Rwanda yesterday at its new home in Akagera National Park. The new arrivals are expected to help strengthen the entire genetics of rhino population in the park. Emmanuel Kwizera.

“Home sweet home” is an old English expression of a great sense of gratification to be back home, especially after protracted absence.

In a way that was pretty much the feeling at least among local conservationists when five black rhinos finally arrived in the natural habitat of Akagera National Park marking the end of a 35-hour trip that began from a zoo in the Czech Republic on Sunday.

Jasiri, Jasmina, Manny, Olmoti and Mandela headed off to the savannah park straight from the Kigali International Airport where they arrived aboard a chartered cargo aircraft on Monday.

The five black rhinos arrived aboard a chartered cargo plane, Boeing 747-400F, operated by Air Atlanta under the brand name of ‘Magma’. The beasts touched down at the Kigali International Airport at exactly 2:45a.m on Monday, before heading to Akagera park. Courtesy.

This marked the largest ever translocation of rhinos from Europe to Africa, according to Safari Park Dvur Kralove where they have been living since November last year.

They were in carefully built crates and had a team of about three people who were taking care of them throughout the journey.

One of the five rhinos translocated to Rwanda from European zoos feed on arrival at Akagera National Park yesterday. Emmanuel Kwizera.

The three female and two male black rhinos, aged between two to nine years,  were chosen from European zoos.

On arrival at the Kigali International Airport, the rhinos were immediately put on to three trucks that subsequently drove them to the Akagera National Park east of the capital Kigali.

And as the black rhinos and a convoy of local and visiting conservationists and officials that accompanied them approached the park at around 10a.m they received a rousing welcome from nearby communities.

The critically endangered rhinos were removed from their crates one by one upon arriving at the park hours after they arrived in Rwanda aboard a chartered cargo flight operated by Air Atlanta. Emmanuel Kwizera.

Cheerful schoolchildren lined the street leading to the park performing songs and chanting “welcome” to their new neighbours.

On arrival at their new home after a staggering 6,000km journey, the animals embarked on another journey of two or so hours north of the park where they ultimately settled in bomas later in the day.

Their hitherto restricted movement is designed to help them easily acclimatise and complete a carefully managed transition that will ultimately see them released into the wild north of the Akagera.

One of the five black rhinos that arrived in Rwanda from Europe yesterday. This one had just entered a boma at the Akagera National Park. Emmanuel Kwizera.

The rhinos departed from Kigali at around 6a.m and arrived at the park at about 3p.m having stopped on the way to shake off fatigue and feed.

The park is usually 5 hours drive from the capital Kigali.

Manny the rhino was the first to be released from his crate into the boma.

One by one, the critically endangered eastern rhinos left their crates and into a boma, stepping onto the Rwandan soil for the first time – effectively completing months of preparation for relocation to Africa.

A subsequent handover ceremony took place between the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and the Government of Rwanda at around 5p.m, which marked the conclusion of the conservation project that also involved African Parks, the organisation that manages Akagera National Park.

“It is of great honour for the Government of Rwanda to receive the five black rhinos,” Eugene Mutangana, the Head of Conservation at RDB, said, noting that this was part of implementing the rhino meta-population plan.

The representatives from European zoos exchanged documents with Rwandan officials, highlighting that the rhinos have been officially donated to Rwanda.

“We anticipate that the population that has been brought here will integrate with existing rhinos, strengthening the entire genetics of rhino population in Akagera,” Mutangana added.

Jan Stejskal, a representative from Dvur Kralove in Czech Republic, noted that; “We are proud to get rhinos back to Africa but particularly here in Akagera park.”

The plan to return the highly endangered species to Rwanda was first announced last year by EAZA zoos.

Veronica Varekova, the Patron of the ‘Rhinos From Europe to Rwanda’ project, told The New Times that she was excited for this project to finally come through.

“It took a little bit of time but there was no choice other than fighting for the conservation of these incredible animals. This is a huge contribution to conservation and massive contribution to the potential of this park,” she noted.

Veronica was one of the champions of this project and she shed tears of joy when the rhinos finally arrived in Akagera.

Three of the rhinos; Jasiri, Jasmina and Manny originally came from Safari Park Dvůr Králové in Czech Republic, while Olmoti came from Flamingo Land in United Kingdom, and Mandela from Ree Park Safari in Denmark.

The European-born rhinos join 20 other eastern black rhinos in Akagera, increasing the number of rhinoceros in the park to 25 that represent a diversified gene-pool.

‘A good genetic mix‘

Conservationists say this mix is vital for a healthy population of rhinos, with the African Rhino Specialist Group recommending at least 20 unrelated founder animals to enable a successful rhino population.

The newly relocated rhinos, according to NGO Save the Rhino, are best suited for a translocation into Akagera National Park. “The selection must include a good genetic mix within the group itself, and the rhinos need to be at the right age, that is sub-adult. After a couple of years to settle in, the animals will be just coming into breeding age, and the cows should be capable of giving birth to seven or eight calves in their lifetime.”

“This project is just one aspect of the work undertaken by zoos to contribute towards rhino conservation efforts. European zoos that are members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) work together as part of the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP), to improve the future of endangered species within zoos and in their natural habitats.”

Přemysl Rabas, Director of Safari Park Dvůr Králové, said in a statement that, “By undertaking a highly supervised and well-planned gradual acclimation process, we believe these rhinos will adapt well to their new environment in Rwanda.”

Akagera National Park is seen as an ideal destination for the eastern rhinos, after their reintroduction in 2017, a decade after the last one had been seen in the park.

Home to the ‘Big five’

The park has since 2010 undergone a major revival with poaching practically eliminated, paving way for the reintroduction of both rhinos and lions. The park is now home to the ‘Big Five’.

Analysts have praised the role of community conservation in restoring the Akagera National Park and the Government’s policy to plough back 10 per cent of tourism receipts into projects that improve the welfare of neighbouring communities.

“This transport of five rhinos from Europe is historic and symbolic, and shows what is possible when dedicated partners collaborate to help protect and restore a truly endangered species,” said Jes Gruner, Park Manager of Akagera National Park.

The strength of the park’s management was a contributing factor in the decision for EAZA and its members to agree to the translocation, officials said.

Clare Akamanzi, chief executive, Rwanda Development Board, said in a statement, “The translocation of five rhinos from European zoos to Rwanda will further enhance the natural ecosystem in Akagera National Park”.

“This partnership with our European friends is a testament to Rwanda’s commitment to conservation. Today, poaching is almost non-existent in our four national parks and we are confident that these rhinos will thrive in their natural habitat in Akagera. They are a positive addition to Akagera, a park where tourists can now visit the African Big Five.”

It is estimated that there are just over 5000 black rhinos left and the latest translocation is seen as major step towards their conservation and growth.  Wildlife conservationists say the translocation project presents an opportunity to expand the range and protection of the black rhino, and demonstrates how captive rhinos can help supplement and repopulate wild populations within secure landscapes.

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