Battling ongoing flooding, government workers in northwestern Botswana are racing to evacuate the few remaining black rhinos in the vast, swampy Okavango Delta. The effort during recent days to find and move the rhinos—which has been complicated by floodwaters that have engulfed area roads—comes after a surge of rhino killings by poachers in March that left at least six animals dead.
Botswana officials consider the evacuation essential now because they’re increasingly concerned that poachers are emboldened by the absence of safari tourists in the Okavango during the coronavirus pandemic, says Dereck Joubert, who with his wife, Beverly, leads the Botswana nonprofit Rhinos Without Borders, an organization dedicated to relocating rhinos from poaching hot spots in South Africa to areas believed to be safer in Botswana. Reduced human presence makes it easier to move around unseen, and last month, six poachers were killed by law enforcement, according to Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism.
“The Ministry is very conscious that poachers may try to take advantage of the lockdown and the lack of movement by tourists in remote areas to carry out their illegal activities,” the Botswana government said in a press statement on April 27, adding that it has been intensifying anti-poaching surveillance efforts in the past month. Since the country’s coronavirus lockdown began in early April, no new rhino poaching incidents have been identified.
Across Africa, there are an estimated 20,000 white rhinos but only about 4,500 black rhinos, which face the possibility of extinction. Both species live in the Okavango, but only the critically endangered black rhinos are being evacuated to safety. In 1992, Botswana’s last native black rhino fell to poachers, and since the early 2000s, a small number of the imperiled animals have been reintroduced into the area from South Africa (some of those with the Jouberts’ help). The Jouberts, who are both National Geographic explorers at large and also run a number of ecotourism lodges in the Okavango Delta through their company Great Plains Conservation, estimate that fewer than 20 black rhinos may roam the delta today.
The ongoing rhino evacuation efforts to an undisclosed location are urgent not just because workers are racing to beat poachers—they’re also trying to get the job done ahead of the full moon, Joubert says. In early May, when the moon will be full, its bright light will make it easier for poachers to find and kill rhinos without flashlights—a key clue rangers look for on their night patrols in the delta. (The full moon last month, during the first week of South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown, is believed to have been a key factor behind a spike in rhino poaching there.)
“Every time there’s a blood moon or a full moon in Africa everyone involved in conservation—particularly conservation of rhinos—shivers,” Joubert says.
Wildlife officials therefore are trying to evacuate as many of the rare animals as possible in the coming days. Rhinos Without Borders was asked to assist in the evacuation effort and is lending equipment to the operation, including trucks and veterinary supplies.
With the heavy rains and flooding, finding the rhinos—difficult in the best of times—is especially challenging. They’re being spotted from the air, and then trucks are sent in to take them out wherever roads are passable, the Jouberts say. “When the area gets a lot of rain, the roads do get very muddy, and that’s part of the romance of the place,” says John Hilton, a conservationist who has carried out bird surveys of the wetland area as the regional director for the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project. “It’s part of the reason tourists want to go there—because it is so inaccessible, and that’s part of the wonder.” In a typical year, he says, this would be peak tourism time, and people would come in via air or boat, even with the flooding and the recent rains.
The rhinos’ destination in Botswana remains confidential. “All I can say is we are taking the necessary measures to protect our rhinos,” says Cyril Taolo, acting director of Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, who declined to provide specific information about the evacuation. “I’m not in a position to talk about any details regarding ongoing operations.”
It’s crucial to take this action now, the Jouberts emphasize. Poaching incidents in Botswana, of both elephants and rhinos, have been increasing during the past couple of years. The lucrative rhino horn trade in the region is controlled by international criminal syndicates, wildlife experts say. Last year, poachers slaughtered more than two dozen rhinos throughout Botswana, and already that number has been surpassed during the first four months of 2020, Dereck Joubert notes.
Still, he considers Botswana one of the safest places in Africa for rhinos. “While we mourn every rhino that gets killed, and every elephant for that matter, it needs to be seen in context,” he says. “The Botswana numbers are still relatively low.”