Rare black rhinos relocated to Africa's Serengeti

SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK, Tanzania Fri May 21, 2010 4:44pm EDT

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SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK, Tanzania (Reuters) - Conservationists flew the first five of 32 critically endangered East African black rhinos from South Africa back to their habitat in Tanzania's Serengeti park Friday.

The rhinos had been bred from a group that was rescued from the Serengeti in the 1960s and relocated to South Africa to prevent the total extinction of their sub-species at the hands of poachers.

Rampant poaching in the Serengeti -- famed for its sweeping planes and Africa's most spectacular wildebeest migration -- in the 1960s and 70s saw the population of east African black rhinos in Tanzania plummet from over 1,000 to just 70.

Seven were relocated to South Africa in the early 60s.

"This event is a stark warning of what went wrong in the past," Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said at a ceremony for the arrival of the A C-130 Hercules aircraft at the remote Seronera airstrip, deep in the Serengeti.

"The government is fully committed to the protection of wildlife in general and rhinos in particular," he added, as the huge beasts were disembarked.

Organizers said the relocation was part of a new drive by African governments to protect the "big five" mammals -- lions, rhinos, elephants, leopard and buffalo -- that make up one of the continent's main tourist attractions.

The 32 being reintroduced to Tanzania are part of a 50-strong herd bred from the original seven.

"We have trained a special force that will take care of the animals. They are now operating. They are out there in the field cleaning the area (of poachers)," said Dr Simon Nduma, director of the Tanzanian Research Institute.

Conservation experts say the extra protection for the rhinos will also help other species in the park.

Both Tanzania and Kenya have suffered a spike in poaching, particularly of elephants and rhino, in the past few years. Kenya lost at least six rhinos last year, according to experts at Friday's ceremony.

However, officials say conservation efforts in Africa are getting more sophisticated and cross-border.

"Conservation is without boundaries, animals don't carry passports and we believe we are almost in unison in ... what we want to achieve in Africa," said South African National Parks Chief Operating Officer David Mabunda.

(Editing by Tim Cocks)

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