Rhinos Without Borders celebrates first release in Botswana
An ambitious project to move 100 rhino from poaching hot spots in SA marks its first major milestone.
CAPE TOWN - How many rhinos can you fit on a plane? It may sound like the start of a riddle or bad joke, but this was a serious challenge facing a group of conservationists as they embarked on an ambitious new project.
Conceived as a drastic, urgent intervention to save rhino facing grim prospects in South Africa's highest poaching zones, Rhinos Without Borders set out to move 100 animals to Botswana by 2016.
And now it is celebrating the successful conclusion of phase one with the release of the first 10 candidates after an arduous and logistically complex journey.
The project is a collaboration between Great Plains Conservation and &Beyond, and boasts among its leaders legendary wildlife filmmakers and conservationists Dereck and Beverly Joubert, who have spearheaded and overseen every step of the process.
Each animal was sedated to give the team time for a number of tasks before moving it into a crate. Picture: Beverly Joubert/Rhinos Without Borders.
"The whole genesis of this project has been to move rhino out of very, very high and intensive poaching zones - which is in South Africa - into the lowest poaching zone in the continent, which is in Botswana," explains Dereck.
The husband and wife team has spent more than 30 years documenting wildlife in Botswana and are intimately familiar with the reasons the country offers an ideal home for the persecuted animals.
"First of all, there's political will from the top down - the president and the minister of environment are right behind this project and behind conservation," he explains.
"We have a very, very low human population - 2 million odd people - and so the [interaction] and the conflicts between people and wildlife are very, very limited. We have very good protection up in Botswana - and it's a model for the rest of Africa actually - where the Botswana defence force, the entire military arm of the country, is behind anti-poaching and is being used for anti-poaching.
"So, unlike in many other countries up and down the continent where very often you come across anti-poaching forces that are ill-equipped and they're wandering around with old World War II weapons, we have an entire military arm behind us, so it's very well trained and very well equipped. But lastly, and not least of all, are very low corruption rates. And for higher poaching to happen you really do need higher corruption, and so we're encouraged by the fact that Botswana routinely is the number one and number two on the least corrupt countries on the continent."
Ten animals were loaded into an Ilyushin 76 aircraft for the flight to Maun. Picture: Beverly Joubert/Rhinos Without Borders.
CRANES, PLANES & AUTOMOBILES
The sheer weight of each animal presented a demanding task, not least in terms of engineering skills. At an average of 1.5 tonnes or more, the hefty passengers had to be herded into crates, which were moved onto a cargo plane using a crane.
"The logistics of moving these animals is intense. It's a challenge from every aspect - 1.5 tonnes is a rough estimate of the adults - the larger ones will be more," Beverly explains.
But the intricate process starts long before this with locating and darting the rhino by helicopter and sedating them for 15 minutes - in which time the team needs to speedily complete the necessary work.
"In the time that they are sedated everything has to take place, from putting a little chip - an ID chip - into them. We've got to put anklets on them, spray them to clean all the ticks off them, as well as measure the horn and do the ear knotting and all that. And then, of course, they're given the sedative and many hands to try and move them into the crate.
"Moving this large creature into the crate is a challenge so it is dangerous work is so many ways and then they're driven to a boma where they're taken off the crate."
The animals are kept in the boma for six weeks, serving as quarantine, before the arduous process is repeated.
"Then the challenge is to do everything all over again to get them back into a crate, drive them to the airport - which was Durban - and that took a couple of hours because getting the crates onto this huge plane - an Ilyushin 76 - with the crane they had to move and turn every single rhino, because the air law said that the rhino had to be facing forwards, not backwards.
"But once they were on the plane it was two hours flying them to Botswana, because they cleared customs in Maun. The whole area was secured - we had about 60 different security officials around from the Botswana military to anti-poaching units. And it took two hours to get all the crates off this plane straight onto trucks - 10 trucks. And within two hours they were already on the journey going into the [Okavango] Delta."
Each animal was then driven by truck to a secret location in Botswana where they will be monitored. Picture: Beverly Joubert/Rhinos Without Borders.
A SMALL PRICE TO PAY
At $45,000 (over half a million rand) per animal there is no doubt the total cost of the project will run into many millions. But Dereck says it is a small price to pay compared to waiting until it's impossible to bring the species back from the brink.
"I think the justification really is that these animals are being killed at a rate of one every seven-and-a-half hours now," he explains.
"And what we're talking about is the value of an item which will be extinct within the next 10 years unless we do something… Once an animal gets so close to extinction or even into extinction it's almost possible at whatever cost you consider to bring it back, so spending the $45,000-odd now that we have to do to move these animals is probably the cheapest that we could pay to save these animals..."
The money directed towards each animal covers the capture, quarantine and transport, as well as three years of monitoring and securing each individual in their secret location, he says.
"It's no good us just dumping these rhino into Botswana and saying 'off you go' so there's very, very high security around this. Each animal has radio transmitters in a number of micro-chips placed around the body. There's technology now where if you separate the horn from the rhino it sends off all sorts of signals which then bring in helicopters and men with guns jumping out the helicopters."
The first 10 rhinos were successfully released in April 2015. Picture: Beverly Joubert/Rhinos Without Borders.
Although Rhinos Without Borders may go a long way towards developing a strong, safe new breeding nucleus, the Jouberts realise that it cannot be the only intervention.
"I don't think that this effort is the only measure to be taken to save rhinos if we are talking about protecting the species," Dereck says.
As well as protecting individual animals on the ground he says conservation funds need to be dedicated to changing attitudes among buyers and stem the demand.
"But a certain amount of money - if again this was a blank canvas - should go to the market and we should be spending a fair amount of conservation money in the East - in Vietnam, China, Malaysia - trying to get the demand shut down."
The Jouberts do incorporate this into their efforts and have just returned from a trip to China where they were "very encouraged" by the reaction to a series of talks.
"I think that the conversation about rhinos cannot be had in isolation we've got to be having it in the Far East as well as in Africa," Dereck says.
Beverley adds that they try to educate people about the truth and "help whoever is using the end product understand that this truly is doing absolutely nothing for them - it's completely ineffectual and it actually it's in a way slanderous because they're wasting their money and people are probably dying from cancer because here they believe that they should be cured from it and they'll never be cured from it."
While the project is still celebrating the smooth conclusion of its first phase, its leaders are already setting their sights higher than the original goal of 100 animals.
"We've got enough funds to move another 20 animals, maybe 25 animals this year. And then we'll continue the fundraising and we'll move another 65 in the next year," Dereck says.
"I think that we might keep going and try to move maybe 250 rhino. With that it allows us to develop with the present rhino population that's in Botswana a very, very good breeding nucleus that could be a substantial and important breeding herd and core for rhino in Southern Africa if something really badly goes wrong in other countries, those animals can come back again."