Rhinos Without Borders

South Africa’s Great Rhino Airlift

Poachers have hunted South Africa’s rhinos nearly to extinction—but conservationists have a bold new plan to evacuate the animals to safer ground.

Art Wolfe/Getty

South Africa is the most dangerous place in the world to be a rhinoceros. Targeted for their horns, which fetch astronomical values on the black market, rhinos are slayed at the rate of three per day by a ruthless network of poachers. And current protections seem to have provided little deterence because demand and supply continue to rise. So after a year of record killings, an ambitious rescue effort is underway to airlift the great beasts to safety.

There are nearly 25,000 rhinos left in Africa, and more than 80 percent of them live in South Africa. Already in 2014, more than 600 of the wild creatures have been killed, their horns smuggled over borders and into Asian countries where they are in high demand for supposed medicinal properties.

The South African rhino’s perilous situation is in sharp contrast to neighboring Botswana, now eyed by conservationists as a future sanctuary for the animals. A tiny country nestled into the top of South Africa, Botswana’s anti-poaching efforts have been amazingly successful. It now boasts one of the continent’s lowest poaching rates. While countries like South Africa still allow regulated trophy hunting of rhinos, Botwswana outlawed the practice this year. In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, home to the largest population of rhinos in the world, the animal’s existence is increasingly fraught. At least two-thirds of the rhinos killed this year called the protected park home.

Grappling with a ticking clock and what they call “unprecedented pressure,” a coalition of conservation groups have come to a drastic solution: relocating the most threatened rhinos from Kruger to safety in Botswana. Beginning in January, a new initiative called Rhinos Without Borders will start transporting 100 members of the species over the border.

An international wildlife coalition effort, it is being spearheaded by Botswana-based filmmakers and conservationists Dereck and Beverly Joubert, and aims to shuttle the endangered animals out of harm’s way and allow them to repopulate in Botswana’s wilderness.

“It’s as much a story of moving a hundred rhinos as it is about spreading the risk,” the pair told National Geographic earlier this month. “One of the worst things we can do is continue to keep the entire pool of assets in one place.”

Botswana has become a haven of sorts for endangered animals. Its Khama Rhino Sanctuary hasn’t had an animal poached in 24 years, and the country’s elephant population is actually growing in contrast to decreasing populations elsewhere. The 13,000-person strong anti-poaching Botswana Defense Force protects the animals in a country. And there’s motivation for it—10 percent of the country’s GDP is from tourism.

The relatively small population and stable government has fostered a nearly perfect environment for an otherwise threatened species, but the hurdle is transportation.

“Logistically, it’s an absolute nightmare,” says Les Carlisle, who’s managing the Rhinos Without Borders project for andBeyond, a Johannesburg-based travel and conservation group. “A fantastic challenge, I like to call it.”

A rhino relocation begins with tranquilization. If the rhinos are located in Kruger’s more remote wilderness area, a helicopter must be used because vehicles are not allowed in. The rhino is immobilized with a dart shot from the sky. When it falls unconscious, a ground crew drags the beast—which can weigh up to 5,000 lbs—into a net strapped to the chopper. The animals are then offloaded into a crate and driven to a holding zone where they’re tested for diseases. Then it’s back into the container and to the airport, where five rhinos at a time can fit into a transport plane. The aircraft stops once to clear South African customs, then flies on to Botswana. There, waiting trucks will drive the groggy rhinos into the middle of the delta. Some are immediately let free, while others will be held in certain areas to be observed after the trip. From start to finish, their journey should take between 10 and 12 hours. If the rhinos are instead driven to Botswana, travel time could be up to 48 hours.

Last year, a test run with six rhinos went smoothly, and Carlisle is confident it can be scaled up, and possibly even become a model for aggressive wildlife protection.

Obviously, this complex series of rhino travel arrangements isn’t cheap. Transporting each animal requires some $45,000. So Rhinos Without Borders has begun fundraising for the move on a travel crowdsourcing site called Travolta. So far, the $174,000 raised is enough for three rhinos to be moved. The group is also working with a handful of sponsors and partners. The long-term project will also include a ramped-up security effort in Botswana for its new citizens.

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“Hopefully this will set the tone for us to continue to do this with rhinos and other species, if needed—creating a blueprint of how to take wildlife transfers up to scale—and that certainly will sustain long past this project,” Carlisle says.

On Tuesday, the South African government seemed to nod at these efforts announcing strategies to move up to 500 rhinos to safer areas within the country and outside of it, particularly to Botswana and Zambia.

The country “recognizes international opportunities for establishing rhino strongholds in neighboring countries,” the environmental affairs minister told reporters.

The attention may be coming just in time. All five rhino species are now listed in the “Red List of Endangered Species” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and three are considered critically endangered.

Last year, rhinos were killed at a rate of three per day—astonishing when compared to the six total rhinos poached in 2000. The numbers stayed in the low range until after 2007, when suddenly rhinos were being found dead at a disturbingly fast rate, more than doubling in the span of a year at some points. By 2010 it was nearly one dead rhino a day. Now, it could be as many as one every seven hours.

These numbers coincide with balooning business for wildlife poaching, which is now a$300 billion industry. Rhino horn is particularly lucrative—each kilogram can fetch up to $66,000.

But arrests of rhino poachers have also followed an upward curve. Last year, 343 people engaged in the trade were captured by authorities. Unfortunately, park rangers, though highly trained, are rarely a match for well-armed poachers. In the past year, 29 African rangers were killed protecting wildlife from nefarious hunters. These same groups that trade in animals are also shuttling weapons, humans, and other illicit goods across national lines. The conservation world, Carlisle says, is “not prepared to take on underworld.” So the problem of demand must be fixed first.

The spike in poaching is a reaction to a growing market in countries like China and Vietnam, which revere the horn as a traditional remedy for anything from fevers to hangovers. The horns were previously too expensive for the general public, but a rising middle class, especially in China, has created an increased demand. Rhino horns are also sold as ceremonial daggers in Middle Eastern countries like Yemen.

Earlier in August, as the African Leaders Summit converged on Washington, leaders of four countries gathered to discuss wildlife protection. “Let’s kill the market,” Gabon’s president said, in reference to China and its consumption of illegal wildlife materials. “Then we will save the animals, and we will save the human being.”

Conservationists have done it before. In the early 20th century, the white rhino had been hunted down to less than 50 surviving members in South Africa’s Imfolozi Park when the specialists swooped in with “Operation Rhino” and brought the animals to safer pastures where they soon repopulated. The success of that operation took the white rhino out of the IUCN’s threatened species list. The past decade of killings have put it back on. For now, Carlisle says the best way to keep rhinos alive is by moving them, one lumbering gray creature at a time.

“We think we’d like Kruger National Park to have the No. 1 rhino population in the world, and believe Botswana could be second biggest,” Carlisle says of the sustanability of the plan. “It’s a long term investment in creating a second rhino sanctuary.”