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Rhino Conservation: Behind The Scenes At The First Rhino Move

Rhinos Without Borders is a big, bold and ambitious project launched and managed by two of our most credible travel partners, Great Plains Conservation and &Beyond. Their goal is to move a hundred rhinos from poaching hotspots in South Africa to safer, military-protected reserves in Botswana giving the species a chance to recover and form a new breeding nucleus. Our former CEO Gary Lotter particpated in the first rhino capture for relocation: This is his remarkable story of a momentous, bittersweet rescue effort.

Rhino Conservation: Behind The Scenes At The First Rhino Move
Rhino populations in Africa have reached the extinction tipping point due to poaching for the lucrative Far East market for rhino horn.

What is involved in capturing a rhino?

To move just one rhino - let alone the hundred creatures Great Plains Conservation and &Beyond will rescue - is an enormous operation. Not only do you need specialist vets, handlers and trackers, but you also need pilots and heavy-duty drivers. In addition to all the regular 4x4 vehicles, several flatbed trucks are driven on dirt roads into the bush and a small, light helicopter has to be deployed for the vet who will dart the animals with a sedative from the air.

Rhino Conservation: Behind The Scenes At The First Rhino Move
Moving a single rhino involves complicated logistics & the dedication of a huge team of vets, drivers, pilots & rangers.

What does it all cost?

To move one rhino costs approximately US$45 000, which is why fundraising is so critical. That money pays for vets, medications, fuel for the choppers and trucks, specialist vehicle hire, food for the captured rhinos, transport to get the rhino secretly and safely to its new location plus all the manpower required from start to finish. What many people don't realise is that simply by travelling to Africa with conservation-orientated companies (like Great Plains Conservation and &Beyond), their tourist dollars make a direct contribition to preserving Africa's wildlife and reserves.

To move and save a hundred rhinos will cost over US$4-million. When you think about it, only four million dollars gives one of the world's most endangered prehistoric species a real fighting chance against greed and cruelty - it's absolutely worth it!

Gary tells us how they safely captured a rhino:

We set out early in the morning in convoy. The vets and trackers had been monitoring likely relocation candidates for several days to assess their health and overall condition. The project aims to capture a good mix of animals, so mothers with young, juveniles and fertile males are all considered. The local researcher and vet went up in the chopper to spot the animals and make the final decision on which ones to dart. Once that decision was made, we had to work very quickly.

Rhino Conservation: Behind The Scenes At The First Rhino Move
Setting off at dawn: legendary wildlife documentary makers Dereck & Beverly Joubert are in the first 4x4.
Helicopters are essential during the translocation process. First, to find and identify the targeted rhino, and then to dart it safely.
The selected rhinos are darted with a sedative from the air by a specialist wildlife veterinarian.

The animals were temporarily knocked out with a powerful sedative that worked quickly. Once they’re down, their pulse and breathing were constantly monitored by vets on the ground. The animals were blindfolded and their ears blocked by the trackers and handlers to reduce ttheir distress as much as possible.

While all that was going on, the flatbed trucks rolled in, as close as possible – the average adult rhino weighs about 700kg (1 500lbs) so picking them up and carrying them to the truck wasn’t an option.

Rhino Conservation: Behind The Scenes At The First Rhino Move
Vets closely monitored the sedated rhino's vital signs. This rhino's horn was sawn off for his own safety on the truck drive.
Moving one rhino safely and humanely requires a highly coordinated team of experienced specialists.
Still blindfolded & ear-muffled but awake, this male rhino was carefully guided into a pen on the back of a truck.
Rhino Conservation: Behind The Scenes At The First Rhino Move
Moving a 1 500kg rhino is a major team effort!

Will it grow back?

Yes, absolutely, rhino horn is made of keratin - the same substance your nails and hair are made of. Wild rhinos sometimes lose their horns in territorial fights and they always grow back. This is why conservationists can't simply cut off wild rhinos' horns to stop the poaching epidemic, and why killing a rhino just to harvest its horn is such a travesty.

Rhino Conservation: Behind The Scenes At The First Rhino Move
The Jouberts filmed every detail of the move, including this rhino's horn being harmlessly removed.

Why do poachers take the whole horn? Surely sawing off most of it leaves them with a renewable resource?

Tragically, the base of the horn is the most valuable part so it is hacked out and the animal bleeds to death. Rhino horn is completely renewable and could be ‘farmed’ – young rhinos are quite easily domesticated. But because the base can be sold for so much money, poaching syndicates always go for the kill. We’re at a tipping point where rhino deaths could start outstripping rhino births by 2017 – a rhino’s gestation period is about 16 months and they usually only have one calf per birth. Females reach sexual maturity at about six or seven years, while males can be as old as 10 before they’re ready to mate. So they’re not prolific breeders at all.

Rhino Conservation: Behind The Scenes At The First Rhino Move
Once safely secured in their pens, the rhinos' ear muffs & blindfolds are removed & the effects of the sedative start wearing off quickly.

A last word from Gary

It really was a bittersweet experience: on the one hand, it is immensely moving that so many people care about saving rhinos that they give their money, time and expertise to do so. And it’s a fantastic feeling to know that these particular rhinos are going to be able to live their lives safe, wild and free.

On the other hand, it’s no use pretending that I didn’t feel angry and frustrated that it has come to this and I couldn’t help feeling that rhino conservation has become a full-blown war against international poaching syndicates. That said, there is hope. More and more people, governments and institutions are taking wildlife crimes seriously. All is not lost yet - we definitely have a chance to pull rhinos back from the brink of extinction if we act decisively now.

Go2Africa's Gary Lotter witnessed the first rhino relocation in February 2015.
Go2Africa CEO Gary Lotter was privileged to be part of the first rhino move.

How can anyone get involved?

The simplest and most straightforward way is to donate money via Rhinos Without Borders - for every US$45 000 raised, another rhino can be relocated to safety. Great Plains Conservation and &Beyond are covering the marketing and organisational costs to run this project, which means your donation goes to saving the rhinos, not to admin fees.

The logistics to save these rhinos are extremely complicated and expensive whereas the poaching syndicates we're up against take advantage of rural poverty to keep their costs low and their profits huge. Fortunately, where these rhinos are headed in Botswana is under the protection of Africa's most elite, military-trained anti-poaching unit.

The more money raised, the more rhinos saved – it's as simple as that.

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Written by Angela Aschmann. Connect with her on Google+.

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