By Rebecca Lewis @RebeccaSLewis
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Ten white rhinos took their first tentative steps into their new home in Botswana after a 24-hour journey by air and truck from South Africa.
The emotional scenes were witnessed in complete silence by sixty awestruck soldiers, veterinarians, and the team of conservationists who have made this project a reality.
The relocation project called, ‘Rhino Without Borders’, aims to move 100 black and white rhinos from high poaching zones in South Africa, to safe regions in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
There the population will be able to breed and flourish without being hunted for their precious horns.
It is believed to be the last attempt to save the endangered species that is nearing extinction.
Dereck Joubert, who originated the project with his wife Beverly, said: “We are looking into the tsunami of poaching that’s increasing everywhere in the continent.
“We really are working against the clock here. We’re not moving them, we’re saving them.”
The operation is a mammoth task that involves Botswana soldiers, trucks, helicopters, a crane and an ex-Soviet plane.
To move a single rhino costs $45,000 (£30,000) – and the project needs to relocate 100 to safety.
Emmy award-winning filmmakers, conservationists and National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, spearhead the operation in collaboration with their company Great Plains Conservation and eco-tourism partner, andBeyond.
Botswana is deemed to be the safest country in the continent for endangered animals, with the government supporting anti-poaching units and banning hunting. With it’s limited accessibility on land and on air, shoot to kill policy with poachers, limited access to poaching equipment and good cross border intelligence, it is not surprising that it has the lowest poaching rate in Africa.
The first ten white rhinos – the largest group to ever be moved by air - were released into Botswana on April 28 after spending several weeks in quarantine.
Beverly said: “It was very emotional. We felt elated, euphoric in so many ways as each crate was opened and each rhino came out. It was hard to hold those kinds of emotions back, I was tearful.”
The operation is a multi-national effort. Black and white rhinos are darted with a sedative by air, then blindfolded, fitted with a specially-made earplug and chipped.
The chip and anklet mean that the conservation team will be able to monitor their progress after the release and know instantly if the rhino is injured or dead.
The whole process takes just 15 minutes before an antidote is administered and the rhino is carefully guided into a crate.
They are kept in quarantine for six weeks before being transferred to the Ilyushin 76 plane – an aircraft built to carry loads and fitted with pulleys.
The flight, which takes two hours, is significantly less stressful and risky for the rhinos than travelling by road, and reduces the threat of poachers ambushing the convoy.
Translocation via air is much more expensive but the health and well-being of the rhinos and the team was top priority, explains Dereck.
Upon arrival at Maun International Airport, the rhinos, still in their crates, are transferred to individual trucks and taken to a secret location in the Okavango Delta.
The precious cargo are guarded by the Botswana Defense Force and the nation’s anti-poaching unit.
Just one kilogram of rhino horn can fetch up to $95,000 on the black market – so the convoy’s movements are carefully watched by helicopter.
By sunset the ten rhinos – two of which were accompanied by teenage calves – were free to roam in the Botswana bush.
The Jouberts spent the night sleeping on the ground under the stars as the rhinos made their first steps into their new life.
And while it is an impressive feat, there are still 90 rhinos to relocate and millions of pounds to raise.
A rhino is killed every seven hours in Africa, and at this rate, the species will be extinct within our lifetime.
Dereck said: “We’ve got funding for another 20 or 25. And next year we’ll move the remaining 65. We just don’t have options to fail here.
“Of these ten rhinos that we moved, we had them in our hands for eight weeks.
“Statistically all of them would have been dead if we didn’t move them.”