Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

SOUTH Africa is to employ a "harvesting regime" for its black rhino population that would see 5% from each of the country’s established populations being removed annually to promote the animals’ birth rate, the Department of Environmental Affairs said on Tuesday.

The growth of South Africa’s black rhino population is still positive despite the ravages of poaching and habitat loss that saw the continental population plummet from about 65,000 in 1970 to 2,410 in 1995, according to the Biodiversity Management Plan for the Black Rhinoceros that Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa gazetted on Friday.

South Africa is not winning the war on rhino poaching, although the poaching rate has not yet reached the level where it surpasses the birth rate. The country lost a record 633 rhinos between January 1 and December 19 last year. The previous record, for 2011, was 448. The tally for this year is already at least 32.

South Africa’s role in conserving the black rhino is of increasing continental importance as the country — and to a lesser extent Zimbabwe — is the remaining stronghold of two black rhino subspecies. South Africa is home to more than 80% of the world’s rhinos, black and white.

Between 1989 and 2010, the average underlying growth rate for all three subspecies of black rhino in South Africa was "just above" the minimum target rate of 5.17% a year.

The management plan has been released for implementation although the department could not immediately say when that would begin.

Jointly developed by South African members of the Southern African Development Community Rhino Management Group, the plan has the long-term vision of having at least 3,000 of the subspecies Diceros bicornis minor and 500 of D bicornis bicornis.

It also aims to "contribute to the recovery and long-term persistence of the global black rhino population by having viable populations of the indigenous subspecies in natural habitat throughout their former range in South Africa and managed as part of a regional meta-population".

The short-term goal is achieving an annual 5% population growth rate for both species in South Africa, and at least 2,800 D bicornis minor and 260 D bicornis bicornis by the end of 2020.

By the end of 2010, South Africa had conserved more black rhinos (1,915) in the wild than any other range state, accounting for about 39% of the continental total. This increased the continental importance of the South African population "dramatically" over the past 30 years, according to the document.

In 2010 South Africa had just more than 1,680 D bicornis minor (76% of the subspecies) and the only D bicornis bicornis population outside Namibia — 171 animals, or 8.9% of the total population.

South Africa was also home to 60 of the subspecies D bicornis michaeli — 8.1% of that population.

Rhinos act as "flagship species" in wildlife areas because they require large ranges and significant protection, so their conservation also promotes the protection of other species and attracts state support.

The animals, the last remaining "megafauna" species, also stimulate national prestige and contribute significantly to eco-tourism, bringing in jobs and foreign exchange.