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Private Ranches Saving the Rhino

FUMBI the black rhino may not realize it, but with his 24-hour armed personal guards and electrified sleeping quarters, he lives better than most human Zimbabweans.

The young, horned animal and six others are guarded round the clock by men who at night sleep by their sand-bagged pens and during the day maintain vigil in the grasslands on elephants, armed with Belgian semi-automatic FN rifles.

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Zimbabwe, which is home to a small portion of the world's remaining rhinos, is taking very stringent steps to protect the dwindling population.

According to wildlife experts, the number of rhinos worldwide plummeted from 70,000 in 1970 to an estimated 11,000 in 1993.

And out of the 270 remaining rhinos in Zimbabwe, 170 are harbored by private ranches.

The managers of Imire Game Ranch, 60 miles south of Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, say their pioneering experiments in protecting one of the world's most-endangered species may seem extreme at first view. But rampant poaching has forced them to take such extreme measures in the name of conservation.

''The animal hasn't changed for 9 million years. Now we're going to decide its future in the next 20,'' says Ian du Preez, the games park's manager. ''I am confident ... there are no rhinos in Zimbabwe which are as well-protected as these.''

Demand in Asia for rhino horn, used as a curative, has helped shrink Zimbabwe's once-plentiful rhino herds to about 270 from 2,000 a decade ago. A horn can fetch $40,000 -- an enormous sum in a poor nation like Zimbabwe. Poaching is further aided by corruption and a lack of resources. This means that the onus of saving the beasts has fallen largely on private game conservationists.

Zimbabwe has some of the strictest conservation laws in Africa, and killing a rhino results in five to 15 years in prison and fines of about $5,000. But according to rangers, poachers rarely go to jail. ''They are usually shot on the spot,'' says Lin Pearce, a former park ranger.

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Imire Ranch's owner, Norman Travers, was one of the first Zimbabweans to take in the rhinos when the government offered them in 1987 to a handful of private conservationists. He says his rhinos have survived largely due to his stringent security measures -- which have grown more intense to counter the threat of AK-47 gun-wielding poachers.

''We started with armed guards from the word go. But until a year or two ago they carried only shotguns. So we were able to convince the government that we needed the police to issue us FN rifles,'' he says.

Imire's managers carefully investigate and train their local staff to ride elephants and herd the rhinos like cattle. It is a strange sight -- the huge horned beasts, generally prone to charging in the wilds, gently snort as they are fed by bottle and munch on corn pellets like farm animals.

Mr. Travers noted that commercial ranching had helped save previously endangered wild animals. His dream is that one day ranches like his will be brimming with semidomesticated rhinos, in ample-enough numbers to meet the demand for their horns and thus end poaching.

Imire is experimenting with another novel phenomenon: It is the only reserve in Zimbabwe that uses elephants to patrol. As a result, the park is branching out into elephant rides for tourists to supplement income, which mainly comes from overseas and corporate donations.

The great challenge now, having protected them for nearly 20 years, is to successfully breed them in captivity to stem illegal trade. The Imire rhinos, who were all taken in as babies are now prime breeding age -- seven and eight years old. With a lifespan of up to 45 and breeding cycles every three years, they have great potential to produce ample offspring, Mr. Du Preez says. But whether it will work is uncertain. The first baby born drowned accidentally. Du Preez says the protected environment, however, makes survival more likely than in the harsh wilds. But would they be inhibited breeding, surrounded by humans so close by?

''We're an experimental program, so it's hard to say whether we can save them,'' he says. ''I hope we can. When we were kids growing up in Zambezi, we had to sleep in trees because there were so many rhinos on the ground. It's pathetic that it's come to this.''

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