Rhinos to be airlifted to Australia in a desperate bid to save the species

If one man’s mission is successful, Australia is set to see an influx of refugees whose lives are in grave peril in their African homeland. The group is escaping conditions that would be described as genocidal if they were human. But they’re not. They’re rhinos. And according to expat South African Ray Dearlove, they and their entire species are facing oblivion if something drastic isn’t done about the illegal poaching trade that is bringing these mighty animals to their knees.

So ‘Rhino Ray’ has come up with a plan. Through the Australian Rhino Project, he plans to airlift 80 rhinos 11,000km from South Africa to Australia, in order to set up a new population of the animals in a safe environment—an insurance policy of sorts, to ensure the survival of the species.

The project, which is set to begin in August this year with the transportation of six white rhinos, is being driven by some sobering facts: Over 5,000 rhinos have been poached in South Africa since 2010. A rhino is illegally killed somewhere in the country every six hours. The species will be extinct in the wild within a decade if nothing is done to stop what has become an epidemic of slaughter.

Rhino Ray with his beloved beasts. Image: http://theaustralianrhinoproject.org
Rhino Ray with his beloved beasts. Image: The Australian Rhino Project

Over a million rhinos once roamed the African Savannah, but now the white rhino population is estimated at 20,000, while the black rhino numbers are as low as 5,000. ‘We have now reached the tipping point where more rhinos are killed each year than are born and extinction is a real possibility,’ warns the website.

Although he calls Sydney home now, Dearlove was born and raised in the north-east of South Africa, close to one of Africa’s biggest game reserves, the Kruger National Park, where he spent many happy childhood holidays observing the country’s wildlife. ‘The rhino is the closest thing you will ever see to the dinosaur,’ Rhino Ray recently told the BBC. ‘They’re incredible animals.’

Poachers see the mighty animals in a different light. There’s a massive market for rhinoceros horn in China and Vietnam, where it’s used in traditional medicine, and growing demand combined with a species that’s becoming increasing rare means big dollars are up for grabs. A rhino horn can fetch up to $500,000, and poaching has increased by a staggering 9,000% between 2007 and 2014.

Dearlove’s desperate roll of the dice could be the rhinos’ last chance, but it won’t be an easy process. It will coast an estimated AU$70,000 per rhino, and each animal will be required to spend several months in quarantine, with both the South African and Australian departments of agriculture monitoring them.

G'day mate. Black rhinos are in real strife, with only 5,000 left, but Australia offers a potential sanctuary for the species
G’day mate. Black rhinos are in real strife, with only 5,000 left, but Australia offers a potential sanctuary for the species

The Australian Rhino Project was founded in 2013, and the intervening years have been spent busily fundraising and engaging in continuous consultation with the Australian government and wildlife parks, but the hard graft and dedication of Dearlove and his team is about to pay off.

‘It’s been a pretty exciting ride for the last three years,’ he told Australian Geographic magazine. ‘It’s now building up–I think we are close to achieving the first of our objectives–it’s full on, but it’s exciting… I know that six is not going to change the world, but it’s at least six that won’t be killed.’

‘Australia has abundant safety, land, resources (money, people) and is outside of the traditional poaching syndicate links… also – Australia will be harder and not as viable an option for syndicates to set up and travel to target one population.’

Once they reach Australia, the rhinos will go to Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, New South Wales, where they’ll spend two months in quarantine, before being relocated to Monarto Zoo’s safari park near Adelaide in South Australia, which is the largest open-range zoo in the world. All going to plan, another 74 of the animals will follow over the next four years, with the rhinos being spread around the enormous country, large parts of which boast a similar climate and habitat to Africa.

If camels are anything to go by, the lucky rhinos could thrive in their new home. Relatively small numbers of camels were imported Downunder from Arabia, India and Afghanistan in the 19th century to help build railways in the outback, before being released into the wild—and now there are some 750,000 of them roaming around the country.