After 21 hours for flying, Dr. Elizabeth Freeman and I make it to Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape of South Africa. Because we are still one hour from Addo Elephant National Park (AENP), and it’s 10 p.m., Jordana Meyer picks us up and takes us to a B&B to send the night. To celebrate my birthday (which is today) Jordie brings out a cake and everyone sings happy birthday to me!
Black rhinos are elusive creatures that serve as a reminder of prehistoric times, and in recent years, an iconic species for conservation efforts. Habitat destruction and poaching nearly drove black rhinos toward extinction in the 1990s. The population dropped from 65,000 animals to 2,000, but they are slowly repopulating their historical range, now numbering 4,100 individuals.
Because rhinos are slow breeders, it is important to understand the factors that naturally limit reproduction. Our objectives are to establish a long-term study using non-invasive field techniques (via fecal samples) to monitor the hormonal (reproductive and stress) activity and parasitic infection dynamics in the southwestern black rhino subspecies (Diceros bicornis bicornis) in Addo Elephant National Park (AENP), South Africa. We will also simultaneously monitor their movement with camera traps to determine habitat usage. The project will investigate the relationship among these factors and ecological and anthropogenic factors, including interspecific competition (with elephants), predation pressures, precipitation and levels of tourism, that vary among the sections of AENP.
Each rhino in AENP is darted around 2–4 months of age and given a name and a specific pattern of ear notches that can be used to identify individuals on photographs taken by camera traps. Rhinos can also be positively identified by other anatomical features, such as their horn and scars on their bodies. Camera traps will be set up at rhino latrines (bushes where rhinos defecate to mark their territory) to identify recent samples. Hormones will be extracted from these samples, providing information on the individual’s reproductive state and stress levels. Also, parasite load of the samples will be measured as an indicator of health and well-being.
The results from this project will aid management and conservation decisions for the black rhinos in AENP and could be applied to black rhinos across Africa and in zoos.