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Rhinos Will Be Airlifted to Australia to Avoid Poachers

A new project is flying rhinos from South Africa to Australia to create a “biological insurance policy” against increased poaching

A black rhino takes to the air in the first stage of its venture during the 2013 World Wildlife Fund's Black Rhino Expansion Project. (Martin Harvey/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Conservationist have done just about everything possible to save rhinos—they’ve fenced them in, sent out squadrons of anti-poaching rangers, and even cut off rhino horns to make them less appealing. The horns are prized for traditional medicines in China and Vietnam, and with the price of a single rhino horn clocking in at as much as 80,000 dollars per kilogram (2.2 pounds), poachers just keep coming. That’s why one Australian real estate agent is putting a radical plan into effect—he’s transporting rhinos to the land down under.

“There is no safe place in Africa for rhinos today,” Ray Dearlove, a South African transplant and founder of the Australian Rhino Project tells the Australian Broadcast Corporation. “They’ve become extinct pretty much from the top down to South Africa where probably 85 to 90 percent of the white and black southern rhinos that are left in the world.”

His plan is to transport 80 rhinos, 20 per year for the next four years, to Australia. In May, the first six white rhinos go into quarantine in Johannesburg, South Africa. Then, in August, they will fly to Oz and spend another two months in quarantine at the Taronga Western Plains Zoo before reaching their final destination, the Monarto Zoo safari park outside Adelaide. 

While airlifting the two-ton creatures might seem like an over-reaction, recent poaching numbers show that urgent action is needed. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the kill rate of rhinos has exceeded the birth rate for the first time. In 2007, 13 rhinos were killed in southern Africa. In 2013 that number rose to 1,004, 1,200 in 2014 and in 2015 high horn prices pushed the number of poached rhinos to around 1,500 animals.

At that rate, southern white rhinos face extinction within ten years. That’s why Dearlove decided to begin airlifting the rhinos at around $75,000 per animal to create a “biological insurance policy” against extinction in the Outback.

“The numbers are deteriorating fast," he tells the ABC. “I thought Australia is one of the safest places on the planet to start this breeding herd, with the eventual intention that they would be repatriated to Africa when those [poaching] issues are sorted out.”

This isn't the first rhino airlift attempted. Last year the project Rhinos Without Borders began flying the creatures from South Africa to the safer lands of Botswana, with a goal of moving 100 animals. And in 2013 the Wold Wildlife Fund moved rhinos in their Black Rhino Range Expansion Project. But the latest effort is even more ambitious, with the plan of shipping them out of the country altogether.

After three years of dealing fulltime with red tape and naysayers, the 67-year-old Dearlove now has the support of the South African and Australian governments and the project has gained the support of corporate donors and environmentalists like Jane Goodall.

“If you or I don't do anything about it, who’s going to do something about it?” Dearlove tells the ABC. “And when they’re gone, who will they blame?”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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