South African Rhinos May Get an Unusual Safe Haven: Australia

A project is racing poachers to save six critically endangered white rhinos.
A white rhino and her calf in South Africa's Pilanesberg National Park in 2012. (Photo: Mike Hutchings/Reuters)
Mar 31, 2016· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

A team of conservationists has a wild idea to save South Africa’s rhinos from poachers: Move some of them to an entirely different continent.

The transoceanic relocation won’t eliminate the poaching threat, which claimed at least 1,175 rhinos in South Africa last year, said Australian Rhino Project founder Ray Dearlove. But he believes establishing a herd of the animals in Australia would create a “biological backup” that could be used to repopulate the species in Africa at a later date.

The project, which was founded in 2013, aims to bring a total of 80 rhinos to Australia by 2020.

Dearlove expects to begin later this year with six southern white rhinos, which, as the more docile of Africa’s two rhino species, are good candidates to prove the endeavor can work. “We’ve got to get this first shipment right, for the safety of the rhinos and for our credibility,” he said.

Those first six rhinos are themselves survivors of South Africa’s poaching crisis. Dearlove said they are being acquired from a private rancher who initially planned to contribute his entire herd of 12 rhinos to the project. But poachers have already killed six, leaving just one male and five females.

“The guy who owns them, his worst nightmare is that he could lose the rest,” Dearlove said, adding that he hopes the rhinos can be moved in time.

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Before that happens, though, he will need to make sure that any animals leaving South Africa are free of both diseases and parasites. Australia has very strict rules about allowing nonnative animals and plants over its borders—actor Johnny Depp caused a stink last year when he snuck dogs into the country—so the rhinos will be quarantined for two months in South Africa and then for two more months when they arrive down under.

Once out of quarantine, the rhinos will settle in at the Monarto Zoo safari park outside Adelaide. The ecosystem should be fairly hospitable to the animals, Dearlove said, not just because of the climate but also because some African plants that rhinos would normally eat have already become invasive species in Australia.

Once the transplants have acclimated, he hopes they will eventually start breeding.

Dearlove said the project has been criticized as an attempt to bring rhino hunting to Australia. He strongly denied that charge but said that tourism could become a vital element of the relocation. “We’ll encourage tourism, to let people see these magnificent animals,” he said.

At an estimated $75,000 per animal, shipping a rhino halfway across the Pacific is not cheap. Dearlove said the project has raised enough money to transport the first six rhinos and has begun collecting donations for the next phase of imports.

He acknowledged that this is not the only way to save rhinos from poachers—nor should it be. “A lot of people are spending a lot of money and risking their lives to protect rhinos,” he said. “This is one possible strategy among many which may contribute toward saving this iconic animal.”