By Dr. Becker
Every eight hours, a rhino is killed in Africa. This is tragic, as there are only an estimated 30,000 rhinos left in the wild worldwide.1 In South Africa, where most rhinos live, rhino poaching has increased exponentially, rising more than 9,000 percent from 2007 to 2014.2
A compassionate couple — Dereck Joubert and his wife Beverly (a National Geographic filmmaker) — came up with a plan to move the rhinos most at risk of poaching to Botswana, an area where poaching is rare.
They created a project named Rhinos Without Borders, and created a documentary by the same name,3 and to date their plan is working. With a goal of translocating at least 100 rhinos to a safer locale, in July 2017 another 12 rhinos received a new chance at life after being successfully relocated to a highly protected area in Botswana.4 The project, initiated in 2014, has successfully moved at least 38 rhinos to safer grounds.
Rhino Horns Are More Valuable Than Gold, Cocaine
Sadly, the reason rhinos are being poached at alarming rates is for their horns, which are made of keratin (the same material as your hair and fingernails) but wrongly believed to hold medicinal value in curing cancer, asthma and other diseases, as well as increase sex drive and cure hangovers.
Rhino horns are sold for their mythical healing powers in Vietnam, Thailand, China and elsewhere, fetching $108,000 per kilogram, which is more expensive than even gold and cocaine.5 According to conservation organization Save the Rhino:6
“The scarcity of rhinos today and the corresponding intermittent availability of rhino horn only drives the price higher, and intensifies the pressure on the declining rhino populations. For people whose annual income is often far below the subsistence level, the opportunity to change one’s life by killing an animal that they don’t value is overwhelming.
Poachers are now being supplied by international criminal gangs with sophisticated equipment to track and kill rhinos. Often they use a tranquilizer gun to bring the rhino down and hack of its horn leaving the rhino to wake up and bleed to death very painfully and slowly. Poachers are also often armed with guns making them very dangerous for the anti-poaching teams who put their lives on the line to protect rhinos.”
How Are Rhinos Moved to Safer Homes?
Joubert and his wife were studying wildlife in Africa when they experienced the prevalence of poaching and where inspired to take action to protect rhinos. Rhinos Without Borders was born as a joint initiative between the conservation-minded travel companies &Beyond and Great Plains Conservation (Joubert is CEO of the latter). The animals are sedated and moved by air, suspended blindfolded, upside down from a helicopter, instead of by land, as this is regarded as safer and less stressful.
According to Rhinos Without Borders, “This dramatic method is regarded as the safest and easiest way of getting the heavyweight animals to their brand new home in remote and otherwise inaccessible parts of Botswana.”7 As the Africa Live blog reported, &Beyond CEO Joss Kent added:8
“The number of rhino lost to poachers in South Africa is now higher than the rate at which the species can breed and there is an urgent need to create a new breeding population of rhino in a different geographic region. I firmly believe that we have taken a big step towards ensuring a safer future for the species and I am excited to do even more.”
The cost to move one rhino is about $45,000, giving the project a total budget of $4.5 million. In addition to the initial capture, translocation and release, the group provides post-release assistance to the Botswana authorities when possible in order to help secure and monitor the rhino.
The Great Plains Foundation explained that their budget includes elements for ongoing monitoring and anti-poaching efforts in Botswana and the organization works with the Botswana Defense Force and the Ministry of the Environment to continue protecting the species.9
Rhinos Without Borders is just one organization that engages in translocating rhinos to safe havens. Save the Rhino International also participates in this conservation activity, explaining that aircraft or vehicles are used to spot rhinos suitable for translocation. The rhino is then tranquilized and transported via truck in a specially designed crate.
Once the rhino is brought to its new location, it is kept in an acclimatization enclosure called a boma (which is the Swahili word for “fort”) prior to release. During this time, veterinarians assess the animal to be sure it is strong and able to flourish once released.10
Rhinos Face an ‘Uncertain’ Future
Even with the successful relocation of some rhinos to safer areas in Africa, the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) states that these impressive animals are facing an uncertain future. Whereas 500,000 rhinos existed in the wild at the start of the 20th century, this had fallen to 70,000 by 1970 and, as mentioned fewer than 30,000 today.
White rhinos make up the majority, numbering over 20,000, but the remaining four species (greater one horned, black, Sumatran and javan rhinos) are threatened, IRF reported, three of them critically.11
Poaching is by far the major threat facing rhinos — in 2016, 1,175 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa alone — but it’s not the only one. Habitat fragmentation, which prevents rhinos from breeding, along with political problems in countries where rhinos live and those in which rhino horns are consumed are also putting rhinos’ future at risk. There is hope, however, that the establishment of new rhino communities in areas with little risk of poaching may bring life back to the species. Joubert added:12
“It’s not often that one gets the chance to rewrite the future history of a species. A few years ago the ink on the future of rhinos here was just about dry and it told a story of extinction. We’ve changed that and we’ve done it by collaborating with our friends and with like-minded people around the world.”