Evidence-based habitat and species protection of African and Asian rhinos

Rhinos are severely threatened by poaching and the loss of their habitat. As a consequence, the remaining individuals are confined to small, fractured populations. This project investigates the reasons for this drastic decline and attempts to identify solutions that may prevent imminent extinction events.

Project details
Duration: since 10/2009
Third-party funded: yes
Involved Department(s): Dept Evolutionary Ecology, Dept Evolutionary GeneticsDept Ecological DynamicsDept Reproduction Management
Leibniz-IZW Project Leader(s): Petra Kretzschmar (Dept Evolutionary Ecology)
Leibniz-IZW Project Team: Robert Risch (Dept Evolutionary Ecology), Alexandre Courtiol (Dept Evolutionary Genetics), Stephanie Kramer-Schadt (Dept Ecological Dynamics), Thomas Hildebrandt, Robert Hermes, Frank Göritz (all: Dept Reproduction Management)
Consortium Partner(s): Zoo Leipzig, SOS Rhino, Rettet den Regenwald, Rhino and Forest Fund
Current Funding Organisation: Zoo Leipzig, Rettet den Regenwald, SOS Rhino
Research Foci: Understanding traits and evolutionary adaptations
Understanding the environmental context
Improving population viability


Rhinos are severely threatened by poaching and the loss of their habitat. As a consequence, the remaining individuals are confined to small, fractured populations. This poses a variety of problems to which each of the five rhinoceros species react differently.

Since 2009 we have been investigating the reasons for the drastic decline of the Sumatra rhino in our study area, the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Sabah, in Borneo. We use historical data, population models and remote sensing data to investigate the causes of decline and hope to use this data to prevent the decline of other large mammal populations. We investigate resource selection and identify habitats that are avoided by rhinos. The findings are used to advise politicians and conservationists in order to save the last remaining individuals of the species in Indonesia (Sabah Rhino sub-project, Department Ecological Dynamics, Department Reproduction Management).

Additionally, we investigate ways to prevent the decline of other large mammal species through wildlife corridors which aim to connect isolated habitats. The work is carried out in close cooperation with the Rhino and Forest Fund. This NGO buys agricultural land, mainly oil palm plantations, and transforms them through reforestation into near-natural rainforests. At the Leibniz-IZW we accompany this process scientifically and use various techniques such as camera traps and satellite telemetry to investigate how biodiversity returns and how soil quality improves in these degraded habitats (Tabin-Kulamaba corridor sub-project).

In South Africa we are conducting a long-term study on the social behaviour and population biology of black and white rhinoceros. Our research focuses on private game farms. Here we investigate, among other things, the different factors influencing the growth of the white and black rhino populations. Furthermore, we study the effects of species-specific social behaviour (mate choice) on the genetic variability of both rhino species by means of paternity analyses. Similar to the Sumatran rhino, the fragmentation of habitats can lead to a long-term threat to the species. We use the results of our work to formulate management recommendations for NGOs and conservation agencies to ensure the survival of African rhinos (African Rhino sub-project, Department Evolutionary Genetics).

Selected Publications

Kretzschmar P, Auld H, Boag P, Gansloßer U, Scott C, Van Coeverden de Groot P J, Courtiol A (2019): Mate choice, reproductive success and inbreeding in white rhinoceros: New insights for conservation management. EVOL APPL. doi:10.1111/eva.12894.

Gardner P, Goossens B, Wern JGE, Kretzschmar P, Bohm T, Vaughan IP (2018): Spatial and temporal behavioural responses of wild cattle to tropical forest degradation. PLOS ONE 13, e0195444. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0195444.

Kretzschmar P, Kramer-Schadt S, Ambu L, Bender J, Bohm T, Ernsing M, Göritz F, Hermes R, Payne J, Schaffer N, Thayaparan, ST, Zainal, ZZ, Hildebrandt TB, Hofer H (2016): The catastrophic decline of the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni) in Sabah: Historic exploitation reduced female reproductive performance and population viability. GLOB ECOL CONSERV 6, 257-275. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2016.02.006.

Cinkova I, Ganslosser U, Kretzschmar P (2016): Effect of supplementary feeding on social behaviour and distribution patterns of free-ranging southern white rhinoceros. MAMMALIA 81, 433–443. doi:10.1515/mammalia-2016-0016.

Ancrenaz M, Sollmann R, Meijaard E, Hearn AJ, Ross J, Samejima H, Loken B, Cheyne SM, Stark DJ, Gardner PC, Goossens B, Mohamed A, Bohm T, Matsuda I, Nakabayasi M, Lee SK, Bernard H, Brodie J, Wich S, Fredriksson G, Goro H, Harrison ME, Kanamori T, Kretzschmar P, Macdonald DW, Riger P, Spehar S, Ambu LN, Wilting A (2014): Coming down from the trees: Is terrestrial activity in Bornean orang-utans natural or disturbance driven? SCI REP 4, 4024. doi:10.1038/srep04024.