Have you ever seen a rhinoceros fly? We have (more on that later), and it is miraculous and mind-blowing, yet humbling and heart-breaking. The harsh reality is that one rhino is killed every eight hours in South Africa and if illegal poaching continues at such an alarming, exponential rate, it is estimated that the entire species could become extinct as early as 2025. It is quite possible that our own children and grandchildren could never see a rhino in the wild.
Did you know that rhinos have roamed the earth for approximately 50 million years? It’s true. These prehistoric creatures have every right to be here, yet are being brutally slaughtered for their horns, which by the way hold no medicinal value whatsoever. No one wants to see the graphic photos, yet the heart-wrenching reality remains – these gentle unsuspecting giants are being silently tracked by poachers at night, most often under the unavoidable and unfortunate light of a full moon. Their faces are violently hacked off with knives/machetes and they are left to painfully bleed to death, and more often than not, their helpless calves (if they aren’t killed for their own small ‘stump’ of a horn) are left scared, alone, orphaned and scarred for life. Sorry to be so graphic, but this is exactly what our teams and colleagues in the field are forced to witness, day in and day out.
One gram of rhino horn is now worth more on the black market than gold, diamonds and cocaine, making it the world’s most valuable illegally traded commodity. And all it is, is keratin! Can you believe it? The exact same substance found in our own hair and fingernails. Scientifically confirmed to be completely and utterly useless, rhino horn remains a prized status symbol for so many Eastern cultures, who revere it as the ultimate cure for anything from headaches and hangovers, to cancer and impotence.
It’s a sobering scene and one that has driven us to act. And fast. Our Rhinos Without Borders translocation project is a joint initiative with Great Plains Conservation and together, we have pledged to move 100 rhino to safety in neighbouring Botswana. Why Botswana? Well, this conservation-loving country remains relatively unscathed by the scourge of illegal poaching and it makes good conservation sense to move these animals away from densely populated wildlife areas that are easier for poachers to target. By donating our rhinos to Botswana, this also diversifies the genetic pool of their national rhino population.
A story of hope, Rhinos Without Borders continues to generate the much-needed funds to keep moving more rhino to safety. It costs USD 45 000 to translocate just one rhino, so every cent donated by our guests, conservationists and wildlife lovers alike really does help.
Most recently, the Rhinos Without Borders team successfully translocated 12 white rhino from a high-risk area in South Africa to a much safer haven in Botswana. As always, it was a top secret mission. The rhino had been previously captured, fitted with telemetry devices, their DNA sent to the national database and then the animals were held in a quarantine boma until it was time to move.
An incredulous sight to behold, a dozen critically endangered heavyweights were safely airlifted to their new home, first by an impressive Botswana Defence Force C130 airplane, then one-by-one, slung beneath a helicopter.
Now this is something that has to be seen to be believed. Even the most seasoned conservationists and game capture specialists will admit to standing back (with lumps in their throats) and watching in awe as each rhino was expertly and gently lifted overhead, dangling upside-down beneath a helicopter. There wasn’t a dry eye to be seen.
Under heavily armed military guard, a Botswana Defence Force airplane carefully delivered the precious cargo, four at a time, to an undisclosed dirt airstrip in the middle of nowhere. Smoothly and ever so swiftly, the rhino were rushed off each plane and with careful precision and unbelievable expert piloting skills, each rhino was then heli-lifted, dramatically suspended upside down, to its new home. Fully sedated and immobilised, the rhino is completely unaware of what is happening until it is safely – and with the ultimate in aircraft precision – placed back on terra firma and given an antidote to wake it up.
Although dramatic and totally surreal to see, this method is regarded by capture and translocation experts as the quickest, safest and easiest way of transporting such heavy animals to remote and otherwise inaccessible areas (not to mention the fact that it has less impact on the animal and its stress levels). This operation was actually the first time this technique has been used to translocate rhino into a new habitat, as opposed to evacuating it from an unsuitable or overpopulated one. A conservation lover himself, and long-time friend of &Beyond, His Excellency Lieutenant-General SKI Khama, the President of Botswana, as well as TK Khama, the Honourable Minister of Tourism, were both present for this momentous release. The minister reiterated his conviction that our unique partnership, which combines government involvement with private companies such as &Beyond and Great Plains Conservation as well as private donors, proves that tourism can and does in fact make a meaningful difference towards the conservation of Africa and its threatened species
To date, 37 rhino have been safely translocated with Rhinos Without Borders and seven rhino calves have been born in Botswana, a tremendous milestone for the project and confirmation that the animals are thriving in their new environment. An impressive USD 3.6 million has been raised, thanks to the generosity of concerned donors around the world and enough funds have been secured to move a further 40 rhino to safety this year. An operations centre has also been established in Botswana for the monitoring and surveillance of this precious addition to the rhino population.
So many people, from around the world continue to put rhinos first and have selflessly contributed time, money and effort towards this much-needed project. Former &Beyond ranger, Daniel Fenton, spent a gruelling 45 days walking 922 km all the way from South Africa to Botswana in an effort to raise funds and awareness. &Beyond Sales & Operations Director Ryan Powell has committed to running not one, but seven, international marathons in seven months to help raise funds (you can support Ryan’s 7-7-7 International Rhino Run here). Former &Beyond ranger, Mark Pretorius, faced the ultimate physical and mental challenge as he conquered the ‘toughest footrace on the planet’, the Marathon des Sables across the Sahara Desert and raised ZAR 74 000 for Rhinos Without Borders (read his inspiring story here). From school children folding rhino origami and hosting fundraiser bake sales, to concerned corporates and wildlife-loving citizens, people from all ages and all walks of life have contributed to this journey and we are so humbled by and grateful for all of the continued support.
As it stands, conservationists believe that we may have reached a tipping point whereby the current number of rhino lost to poachers in South Africa (that’s more than 6 000 since 2008) is now higher than the rate at which the species is able to breed, so the need to create a new breeding population of rhino in a different geographic region is dire. By moving this 100 rhino we hope to help secure the species and give it a fighting chance at survival.
I personally cannot imagine a world without these magnificent three-toed, two-horned beauties. Rhinos Without Borders is a story of hope and survival and we can only pray that the ever-present threat of extinction is reversed and that these prehistoric beasts continue to roam freely, just as nature intended.
To form part of this remarkable conservation project and contribute towards future rhino translocations and the survival of this species, please visit www.rhinoswithoutborders.com.
Images courtesy of David Murray, Matthew Copham and Simon Naylor.