The WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project uses DNA sampling to create new black rhino populations in an attempt to increase the reproduction rate of this critically endangered species.

With World Rhino Day on 22 September, it is fitting to celebrate the WWF’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP), which has created 11 new black rhino populations over the past 16 years.

An anaesthetised black rhino takes about four to six breaths per minute, something zoologist Ursina Rusch instinctively counts when she’s taking tissue samples from their ears or tails.

“You can feel it inhale and exhale, and we keep an eye on the respiratory rate to make sure it’s breathing normally and not in distress,” she explains. “We also work around the earplugs that reduce environmental stimulus on the sedated animal.”

Ursina is the project coordinator for BRREP that creates new black rhino populations in order to increase reproduction rates of this critically endangered species.

6 - helping hand

Science-Based Support

It is Ursina’s task to ensure that conservationists have a record of the DNA of every individual rhino on project sites. For the past two years, she has been collating samples of black rhino DNA to ensure that they are being managed in the best way possible.

So far, samples have been collected from about 90% of the animals on project sites with the assistance of the WWF Nedbank Green Trust. This Trust is funding the Black Rhino Conservation Management Through Science-based Support initiative.

Samples are collected when rhinos are sedated to be relocated to a new home, or to have their horns removed as an anti-poaching measure, or to be “ear-notched.” This forms an important part of rhino security, and makes it possible for game guards to recognise individual rhinos from a distance.

“You can take the whole notch which has been cut out, or another little piece of tissue – about the size of a fingernail. The animal doesn’t feel it when it is under anaesthetic and we spray the notch site with disinfectant to make sure the cut heals quickly,” Ursina explains.

The tissue is sent to the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria where rhino DNA is extracted and recorded as part of the Rhino DNA Indexing System (RhODIS).

Photo: Charlotte Cornwallis
Photo: Charlotte Cornwallis

A Few Surprises

Identifying the DNA of individual rhinos assists with criminal cases involving poached rhino horn, and it also enables conservation managers to better understand their rhino populations.

By way of an example, Ursina explains, “A few years ago a female black rhino and sub-adult calf pair were caught and taken to one of our project sites as part of a new population. It was assumed that because they had been together at the time of the captures, they were mother and calf.”

But six years later, when their DNA was profiled, it turned out that the two animals were unrelated. The sub-adult may have been pushed away by its real mother when she had another calf and may have joined up with the other female.

“We make assumptions about who is related to whom, often based on rhino behaviour, but sometimes the genetics completely refute our assumptions.” 

On another site, it was thought that the dominant bull had sired all eight of the population’s calves, but the genetics indicated he had actually only sired two.

“Knowing that, we can make more informed and pragmatic decisions about what is best for the genetic health of the population. We will soon have a black rhino ‘stud book’ and genetic management plan for each of the project sites. With that knowledge we can make informed decisions about maintaining the genetic health of the overall species,” she adds.

BRREP is now in the position where a number of the black rhino offspring in the 11 project populations have reached adulthood. Some can now be removed and translocated to form part of a new population.

Black rhinos once numbered more than 100 000 across sub-Saharan Africa, but since the 1960s poaching for their horns decimated their numbers to less than 3%.

With two more new populations underway, BRREP is helping the black rhino population to recover – one rhino at a time.

You too can give WWF wings

Another great way to support the wonderful work of WWF South Africa is to donate your SAA Voyager Miles. Donating your miles is easy:

  1. Log in to your Voyager account at
  2. Choose Voyager Shopping and select Donate Miles
  3. Under Target Account, select WWF and make your donation
  4. You can also do it via the new Voyager app

By donating your miles, you will help WWF South Africa work towards its conservation goals, and free up valuable organisational resources that can be ploughed back directly into environmental work.