Weighing up to two and a half tons each, rhinos aren't easy to herd, let alone pack into crates and ship across national borders in airplanes.
But that's what conservationists are doing with about a hundred rhinos in South Africa, in an admittedly desperate bid to save the endangered animals from poachers and establish new populations in the wild.
"Rhino conservation is a desperate situation, so we are moving rhinos from the highest poaching areas to the lowest poaching areas," says Dereck Joubert, a wildlife filmmaker and conservationist based in Botswana's Okavango Delta.
There are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 black rhinos and 20,000 white rhinos left in Africa, with another one killed by poachers every seven and a half hours, says Joubert, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. That's more than a thousand rhinos slaughtered a year, mostly so their horns can be hacked off and sold in China and Vietnam on the black market.
The horn is marketed as a cure for a wide range of ailments and fetches about $65,000 (U.S.) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) on the street, even though Western scientists dismiss its purported medical uses. "It's smoke and mirrors; it does nothing," says Joubert. "It's like chewing your fingernails." (Read more about rhino wars.)
Joubert and his wife Beverly launched a nonprofit campaign last year to move 100 rhinos from the highest poaching zones in South Africa, to the lowest poaching zone in the whole of Africa, Botswana. The project is now called Rhinos Without Borders, a collaboration with tourism partners Great Plains Conservation and andBeyond.
The animals are being treated for illnesses and parasites. In a few months, they'll be flown by cargo plane to another undisclosed location in a park in northern Botswana.
These types of airlifts have been tried before, for rhinos, elephants, and other animals, but the Jouberts' plan makes it the largest airlift of rhinos in history. The team hopes to collect another 25 rhinos from South Africa by year's end and move 65 more next year.
At $45,000 per rhino, it's an expensive operation. And each move takes months to complete.
Game managers have been moving rhinos for decades in an effort to restock dwindling populations and thwart rampant poaching. Some of the moves are to and from private game reserves but many have been paid for by African governments, with some support from international nonprofits such as the World Wildlife Fund.
Rhinos and other animals are being moved overland to more secure zones in Kruger National Park in South Africa, away from the porous and poacher-infiltrated border with Mozambique. Twenty-five black rhinos were airlifted to Zambia from South Africa between 203 and 2010, in an effort to return the species to a country where it had disappeared by 1993. (Learn more about moving rhinos.)
In Botswana, the Jouberts hope to double the current wild rhino population, from an estimated 77 to 100 animals to 200 animals within a couple of years. Before the advent of modern hunting, the country was home to a thriving population. Today, about 80 percent of the world's wild rhinos live in South Africa. (Read a Q&A with the Jouberts on the project.)
Botswana is considered relatively safe for rhinos in part because it has a human population of just two million, compared to 53 million in South Africa, reducing human pressure.
Botswana's government has also enlisted the military to defend against poachers and maintains a controversial "shoot to kill" policy against them. And Joubert says that corruption is relatively low, so that government collusion with poachers is less of a problem than in some other African countries.
How to Move a Rhino
Moving a rhino is even more involved than it sounds. The process begins with the Jouberts' team working with game managers in South Africa to identify animals in reserves that are crowded or are facing intense poaching threats.
Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino International, says game managers look for rhino populations that are nearing the capacity of their habitat to support them. The closer the population gets to that point, the more the birth rate goes down, which means fewer rhinos, says Dean, who is not involved with the Jouberts' project but has worked on other rhino moves through her London-based charity.
Once the animals are selected, a warden darts them with a sedative, typically from a helicopter. Then the rhinos are roped, blindfolded, given an antidote to the sedative, and walked into a cage. The animals are kept in quarantine for six weeks—to reduce the chance of them spreading disease—and are outfitted with microchips in their body and horn.
"That means we know instantly if the horn is separated from the body by a poacher," says Dereck Joubert.
When the rhinos are ready for new homes, they're loaded onto commercial freight planes, up to five per flight. Beverly Joubert says that flying provides higher security from poachers and reduces the time the animals have to be sedated, although it costs more than overland transport.
The process carries a mortality rate of 2 to 5 percent, mostly due to the risk of the rhinos overdosing on tranquilizers or overheating, say the Jouberts, although veterinarians have succeeded in driving the death rates down over time.
The animals are released only on land where other rhinos had not previously established territories, to avoid conflicts, Beverly Joubert says. It doesn't take long for the new arrivals to mark out their own space with their droppings.
So far, Rhinos Without Borders has moved only white rhinos, but it plans to eventually relocate a few of the more endangered black rhinos. Young rhinos that are just a few years old are preferred because they have several years of reproduction ahead.
The campaign is a partnership between the Jouberts' Great Plains Foundation and their Great Plains Conservation travel business and the safari company and Beyond. Rhinos Without Borders has raised more than $260,000 for the project through the crowdfunding site Trevolta.
Beverly Joubert says the key to the program's long-term success will be making sure the local communities in Botswana benefit from the rhinos through ecotourism. In South Africa, some communities support poachers for a cut of horn sales. (Learn about the controversy around legal rhino hunting.)
The program has attracted some criticism. South African game warden Bruce Leslie has told the news media that it remains to be seen whether moving rhinos around will afford them enough protection against relentless poaching.
Asked if conservation dollars are well spent on moving rhinos, Dean of Save the Rhino says there is no "one size fits all answer ... You have to consider the objectives of the particular project and ask if there are cheaper ways of achieving the same thing."
Dereck Joubert argues that desperate times call for desperate measures. "Time is running out and we need to trigger something positive," he says. "It's no good to talk about how Africa is losing its wildlife without working on any solutions." (Learn more about the Jouberts' efforts.)
Note: On April 7 at 3:30 pm this article was updated to better clarify the origin of the term "Rhinos Without Borders." That name had previously been used by andBeyond, but after the Jouberts joined forces with them they agreed to change the name of their rhino airlift program to that.