Bold plan to fly SA rhinos to Texas

Flying a thousand rhinos from South Africa to south Texas sounds like something out of a bad Disney movie. But if the plan, announced last week by Group Elephant and the Exotic Wildlife Alliance, goes through, it could become a model for conserving animal populations under threat.

The proposal to transport 6% of the country’s rhinos to southern Texas, which has a similar climate and landscape to the animals’ native habitat, underlines just how bad poaching has become.

Last week, the environment minister revealed that a record 393 animals were killed in the Kruger National Park between January and April of this year.

Home to 80% of the planet’s rhinoceros population, South Africa is in the midst of a poaching epidemic. The animals’ horns fetch a high price – $65 000 for just under 1kg – in markets such as China and Vietnam, where rhino horn is an ingredient in traditional medicines. Illegal rhino killings increased by 20% in 2014, with 1?215 rhinos dead.

Conservation groups, representatives of the government and individual supporters – such as landowners – in both regions are just beginning to formulate the Texas relocation plan. Game farmers own roughly 5 000 of South Africa’s estimated 20 000 white and black rhinos, and have good reason to co-operate with a scheme that might preserve the population.

New breeding groups
Game farmers have long been a part of South Africa’s conservation plans. In 1900, the white rhino population in the country had shrunk to a mere 20 head, and government decided to relocate them to zoos and private game farms.

The rhinos formed new breeding groups and the resulting offspring outnumbered the rhinos killed for trophies. For a time, it worked.

But, with poaching at record levels, the longer the rhinos are on a game farm, the greater the likelihood they’ll be killed.

The proposed relocation scheme would move rhinos to individual ranches in Texas, and the relocation plan would provide South African game farmers with partial ownership of the transported rhinos’ offspring.

If the plan goes forward, the rhinos will roam free on ranch land and there will be a prohibition on hunting them or their progeny in perpetuity, said Jonathan Tager of Group Elephant.

Several challenges
But the plan must overcome several challenges before it can move forward: it must get approval from the United States department of agriculture to import the animals; it must find enough ranchers in Texas who want to take the rhinos; and it must raise the funds to move the creatures, at an estimated cost of at least $50 000 a rhinoceros.

In February last year, wildlife filmmakers and conservationists Dereck and Beverly Joubert launched a campaign to move 100 rhinos out of the country.

At the time, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa kept mum on where the animals would be moved “for security reasons”.

In March this year, the rhinos were airlifted from South Africa to Botswana, which is less populated and has not experienced as many poaching incidents.

The Jouberts’ campaign, Rhinos Without Borders is the largest and most expensive rhino relocation to date. The team has said it hopes to collect another 25 rhinos from South Africa by year’s end and move 65 more next year.

‘Shoot to kill’ policy
In addition to more space, Botswana has a harsh “shoot to kill” policy against poachers. It’s extremely controversial, but some wildlife conservationists believe it’s the only way to stem poaching.

Last year, in a discussion about elephants killed for their ivory tusks, Suwanna Gauntlett, chief executive of conservation group Wildlife Alliance, told the Guardian she believed strict law enforcement was the only long-term solution to poaching.

Gauntlett says the international community often focuses on the problem of demand, but that it needs to give at least as much attention to protecting animals on the ground.

Still, taking on the exotic animal trade is no easy task. “Wildlife trade truly is a well-organised criminal network,” Gauntlett said. “All the echelons of the food chain are held to top secrecy. It’s like a mafia. Threats on peoples’ lives are very common and they have methods to keep people in line.”

The approach of on-the-ground interventions with armed law enforcement has been effective for other species: it helped reduce poaching of Siberian tigers by 80% from 1984 to 2001, and elephant poaching in Cambodia by 98%.

Reducing bribery
Wildlife Alliance pays park rangers a supplement to reduce the chances that they will be lured by bribes from poachers.

The Exotic Wildlife Association and Group Elephant say they have had an enthusiastic response from South Africans to the US relocation plan. The groups are also beginning to line up supporters in Texas.

If the plan gets approval and funding, it could take years to transport all 1 000 animals – and perhaps years more to restore the surviving population to South Africa.

Tager added: “In the fullness of time – when the rhino horn madness has hopefully subsided in South Africa – we would plan on repatriating some of the rhinos and their offspring to Africa.

“In the meantime, we will continue to explore local alternatives to providing safe havens for rhinos.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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