The rhino relocation programme thwarting poachers

Poachers have driven rhino numbers dangerously low, but new initiative Rhinos Without Borders aims to boost the population and provide a safer haven for those at risk

South Africa remains the prime crime scene for rhino poaching worldwide, with the killing of almost 400 rhinos in the first four months of 2015. Government agencies, such as the South African National Parks (SANSParks), have been unable to stop the alarming rise in poaching over the last decade – an escalation in illegal trafficking that has been driven by a fast growing demand for rhino horn in the emerging economies of south-east Asia, especially China.

SANSParks is now partnering with private organisations to curb those losses and ramp up its rhino conservation effort. One such alliance is with the Rhinos Without Borders (RWB) initiative.

Led by award-winning conservationists, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, Rhinos Without Borders intends to move 100 rhinos from South Africa into Botswana, where rhino poaching is at its lowest on the continent.

Like Newton’s theory of gravity, the idea of moving rhinos across geopolitical borders came to Dereck while he was sitting under a tree. He was discussing the latest cases of poaching with some fellow conservationists – all were frustrated by the unrelenting slaughter of rhinos in South Africa’s wilderness areas. They agreed that they “needed to do something positive and proactive,” something innovative to foil poachers. And so, Rhinos Without Borders was born.

“This is a story of hope for rhinos, with conservationists and professionals rolling up their sleeves to do something positive for a species that cannot protect itself from greed and corruption.”

Initiated in January 2015, and expected to conclude by March 2016, RWB is being implemented by Great Plains Conservation (GPC) in partnership with travel company &Beyond. The GPC website describes the initiative this way: “This is a story of hope for rhinos, with conservationists, individuals, as well as industry and tourism professionals rolling up their sleeves to do something positive [for a species] that cannot speak for [itself] and cannot protect [itself] from greed, corruption and abject stupidity.”

“We started this particular project as a direct result of the poaching surge. So far we’ve moved ten rhinos of our target 100,” Joubert said. “We successfully undertook the translocation of these first ten at the end of April 2015, and we’re looking to move another 25 this year and 65 next year. All 100 rhinos will be going to Botswana.”

The entire operation, from start to finish, is logistically demanding. First, a suitable rhino is identified by helicopter. A veterinarian then alerts the capture team so that they can get into position, after which the rhino is darted from the air. The capture team moves swiftly to blindfold the rhino before adding earplugs, thus keeping it calm as the sedative takes effect and the animal lies down. This ensures that rhino stress levels are kept low so its health isn’t jeopardised.

Next, the research team takes various rhino measurements and administers treatments for ticks and other parasites. Notches are made in the rhino’s ears for future identification. Once awake, the animal is carefully helped to its feet and walked around in a large arc to facilitate blood circulation, particularly to the legs. The rhino is then gently guided into a crate where blindfold and earplugs are removed. Finally, the crate is transported by truck to a safe staging location where the animal will stay during quarantine before beginning the long journey to Botswana.

Although flying the rhinos from South Africa to Botswana is more costly than driving, the RWB team chose flight because it significantly reduced travel time, the rhinos’ stress levels, and the chance of ambush by poachers.

When the cargo plane containing the ten rhinos landed at Maun International airport in Botswana, trucks awaited the new arrivals. The vehicles travelled by military convoy to prevent ambush by poachers. Finally at the release site, the rhinos were offloaded and returned to the wild in a new, hopefully safer, home.

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A remarkable side benefit of this anti-poaching initiative is its potential enhancement of genetic diversity in wild rhinoceros populations. While primarily concerned with the existential threat of poaching, the project also seeks to preserve the species’ genetic viability. Inbreeding has become particularly problematic as the numbers of these animals decline and the ability to find suitable mates is reduced. To ensure that the new seed population has a broad gene pool, rhinos sent to Botswana are selected from different parts of South Africa, thereby creating a ‘Noah’s ark for rhino genes’.

Meanwhile, governments throughout Africa are debating the possible legalisation of the rhino trade. Scientists, such as the Jouberts, warn that conservation of the species must be the end goal of any consensus decision. The notion that legalising the rhino trade will eradicate the black market for rhino products is one that conservationists seriously refute. Such a legal decision will “de-stigmatise poaching and thus increase market demand”, Joubert opines.

“I’m open to the debate on any line that saves the species. However, it doesn’t make sense to me that the present 20,000 rhinos, of which maybe 8,000 are privately-owned, could even remotely provide horn for two billion people,” said Joubert. “I don’t know of any commercial farming ventures anywhere that go into business to lose money, so this is unlikely to reduce prices. Until there is zero demand there will always be poaching.”

Rhinos Without Borders is blazing the trail for future conservation partnerships with its ingenious initiative and successful relocation of rhinos. The natural heritage of Africa, so vital to its economic progress, may well depend on this type of bold action.

Joubert concludes: “Everything we do is about conservation at its heart, its core, as we can think of nothing more precious than the wilderness and wildlife that Africa has been blessed with.”

First published by Mongabay