In a bid to save them from the ongoing poaching crisis, conservationists have embarked on a monstrous but admirable project that aims to relocate at least 100 rhinos from zones with the highest poaching rates in South Africa to the lowest poaching areas in the whole of Africa, Botswana. The nonprofit organization behind the mission, Rhinos Without Borders, hopes that this bold move will not only shield the vulnerable animals from poaching, but will help seed new populations in the wild.
“This is an emergency intervention,” conservationist and filmmaker Beverly Joubert told CBS News. “I do believe that if we don’t do this, rhinos could go extinct in certain parts of Africa.”
Poaching is a serious threat to rhinos. Since 1970, black rhino populations have been slashed from around 16,000 to just 4,000. Thanks to ongoing conservation efforts, white rhino numbers have rebounded after creeping dangerously close to extinction in 1970, but there are still only around 20,000 left.
Around 80% of the world’s rhinos live in South Africa, making this country a hotspot for poaching. Last year alone, more than 1,200 rhinos were killed by poachers here, which works out at roughly one every eight hours. Since 2008, there has been an alarming increase in the incidences of poaching in South Africa, which is primarily driven by the growing demand for rhino horns in Asian countries, mainly China and Vietnam. Despite the fact there is zero evidence that it has any medicinal value, ground-up rhino horn is sold on the black market to treat a variety of ailments, from hangovers to cancer.
“It’s smoke and mirrors; it does nothing,” conservationist Derek Joubert told National Geographic. “It’s like chewing your fingernails.”
Determined to drive change, the Jouberts established Rhinos Without Borders last year. They recently kicked off their ambitious relocation project by moving 10 rhinos from reserves in South Africa to a protected area in the country. The animals are currently being closely monitored for health problems and treated as necessary, but all being well they should be flown to an undisclosed area in Botswana within the next few months.
If all goes to plan, a further 25 will be relocated this year, followed by another 65 in 2016. At $45,000 a pop, this project does not come cheap, but the couple has so far raised $280,000, mostly through crowdfunding. It is also not without risks; the animals need to be sedated before they can be moved, which has around a 2-5% mortality rate. While an expensive option, flying the animals has its merits because it means that they need to be sedated for a shorter period than if they were moved by land.
The idea is to select rhinos currently living in crowded areas that cannot support any more rhinos. Not only do these densely populated areas attract poachers, but overcrowding also reduces the birth rate. The animals will then be moved to parks in Botswana with the hope of doubling the rhino population in this country within the next couple of years.
Unlike South Africa, where some communities support poaching in return for a cut of the profits, Botswana has a zero-tolerance policy towards poaching. The government has also enlisted the help of the military to defend against poachers, who can be legally shot and killed if caught.