A black rhino thunders across KwaZulu-Natal grasslands.

Durban - The government has published a new “rescue plan” for South Africa’s critically endangered black rhinos which calls for much harsher fines and jail terms for poachers – as well as strictly controlled rhino horn trading and hunting some old bulls which had stopped breeding.

The overall aim of the latest management plan is to increase the national herd of wild black rhino by at least 5 percent every year.

It suggests that rhino poachers should be tried in dedicated environmental courts and says there is a need to lobby and influence more politicians to ensure adequate funds to protect the animals from extinction.

Noting that Africa’s total population of black rhino had dropped from 65 000 in 1970 to less than 2 500 animals in 1995, the new plan states that the continent’s black rhino population had recovered to about 4 900 animals.

The main authors of the 80-page plan, local rhino experts Michael Knight, Richard Emslie and Dave Balfour, say South Africa has played a crucial role in protecting the animals. Yet black rhino were not out of the extinction woods, mainly because of the dramatic increase in poaching over the last five years.

From fewer than 110 of these animals in 1935, South Africa now had just over 1 900 (39 percent of the total African and world population).

Rhino were a significant contributor to the South African economy by attracting eco-tourists, creating jobs and generating foreign exchange.

The authors note that selling surplus rhinos from the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park generated about 60 percent of the park’s conservation budget, while tourist surveys in South Africa and Namibia cited rhinos as a major drawcard.

In the short term, South Africa should aim to increase its herd from 1 900 animals to at least 3 000 by the end of 2020.

To do this, conservation managers should thin out rhino in well-stocked reserves and spread out the “eggs” into more baskets where they could multiply more rapidly.

Older dominant bulls tended to depress the growth rate in heavily populated rhino reserves by killing or preventing younger bulls from breeding.

Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife had made significant progress by shifting almost 260 of its black rhino to establish new populations in other provinces and countries between 1990 and 2004.

South Africa also needed to ensure protection of black rhino through better security, intelligence-gathering and law enforcement. This could include harsher penalties for black rhino crimes. At the moment, penalties for black rhino offences provided for jail terms of up to five years and fines not exceeding three times the commercial value of the rhino in question.

However, the Department of Environment Affairs has asked for these penalties to be amended to R10 million for offenders or jail sentences of 10 years.

And, while international trading in any rhino horns remained illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), South Africa should explore ways of increasing the commercial value of black rhino through a regulated system of trading rhino horns legally. - The Mercury