One man's wild idea for saving rhinos: Airlifting them to Australia

The World Wildlife Fund flies rhinos from poaching hot spots to safer terrain. Handout photo by Greenfield media/WWF for The Washington Post
The World Wildlife Fund flies rhinos from poaching hot spots to safer terrain. Handout photo by Greenfield media/WWF for The Washington Post

This is how bad rhinoceros poaching has gotten in Africa: Increasingly, people who want to prevent the animals' extinction are relying on airlifts to save them.

The World Wildlife Fund suspends critically endangered black rhinos by their feet from helicopters and flies them from poaching hot spots in South Africa to safer terrain. Dozens of the beasts are being flown from South Africa to Botswana, where the government has taken a hard line against poachers who kill the animals for the supposed medicinal value of their horns. Last month, 18 elephants were flown from Swaziland to three U.S. zoos, a transfer that organizers said was necessary to prevent the elephants from taking scarce resources from endangered rhinos.

Now, a South African retiree in Australia is spearheading an effort to airlift 80 rhinos from his homeland to the land Down Under. The idea, Ray Dearlove says, is to create an "insurance population" that can breed in peace, far from poachers - and guarantee the species' survival if slaughter causes their extinction in the African wild.

"I don't want my grandchildren only to see rhinos in picture books or some sad specimens in a zoo. The thing is to see them in the wild," Dearlove, 67, founder of the Australian Rhino Project, said in a phone interview. Now, he added, "I don't think there's too many places in South Africa or Africa which are safe for rhinos."

The statistics make that pretty clear. More than 1,338 rhinos were killed in Africa last year, which is the highest number since a wave of poaching began in 2008, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Of those, 1,175 were killed in South Africa, home to about 80 percent of the continent's rhinos.

Poachers in Africa have slaughtered nearly 6,000 rhinos since 2008, and some conservationists warn that the 25,000 or so remaining wild rhinos could be gone within a decade.

Enter Dearlove, whose upbringing in northeastern South Africa included regular trips to the wildlife wonderland of Kruger National Park. He later moved to Australia, as many South Africans do - it's an emigration trend known in South Africa as "Packing for Perth" - and worked for years as an IT sales executive.

Three years ago, he said, a friend in South Africa called his attention to the country's rhino-poaching problem. Soon, Dearlove made his life's mission to resettle rhino refugees in Oz.

"I spend every waking minute of the day on rhinos," said Dearlove, who called the animals the "closest thing that you and I will ever see to a dinosaur. ... And it's so big, and it's so defenseless, and it's so vulnerable."

Australia, Dearlove argues, is a good place to protect rhinos. It has strict border controls, relatively little poverty and corruption, and no known threat from poaching. He says scientist advisers have deemed the habitat suitable, particularly for white rhinos. The Australian and South African governments have agreed to the plan "in principle," he said, although the project still has some hurdles to clear, including Australian approval of a facility outside Johannesburg where the rhinos will be quarantined before their departure.

The first six rhino refugees are from a private game reserve, and they now live in a "safe haven" whose location Dearlove does not want to mention because the animals are, essentially, in hiding. Their owner once had 12 rhinos, Dearlove said, but poachers killed three and then another three.

If it all goes as planned, the rhinos will be dart-captured, transported to the quarantine facility in South Africa, taken to the airport and then flown out on a nonstop freight flight in early August (Dearlove said rhinos, which can weigh 5,000 pounds, are too big to get through the doors on a jumbo jet). Once in Australia, they will again be quarantined, then taken to a safari park. The cost, park-to-park: About $70,000 per animal, funding that Dearlove said has come from donations and his own pockets.

The idea is that all 80 rhinos will live together in a safari park in Australia. But not forever, Dearlove said: Australia and the rhinos will have a "foster relationship," he said, and eventually the animals will be repatriated.

"I know and everyone knows that this is not the answer. Rhinos belong in Africa," he said. "What we're trying to do is just one small strategy in a really complex issue."

- Washington Post

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