Airlift to Australia offers hope for rhinos

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The white rhino could be extinct within a decade if the rate of killing by poachers continues.
An ambitious plan to save the African rhino from extinction will involve up to 40 of the endangered animals being airlifted to Australia to build “an insurance population”.

A new home called “Wild Africa” has been developed an hour’s drive from Adelaide that the Australian Rhino Project hopes will encourage the animals to feel safe and breed. The organisers have spent the past three years developing savannah, dense bush and watering holes in the 120-acre site so that it resembles the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

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Three rhinos are killed each day by poachers in Africa. At that rate the white rhino could be extinct within a decade and the black rhino even sooner. The slaughter is being driven by a seemingly insatiable demand from Asia where rhino horn is believed to cure a range of ills including cancer, hangovers and erectile dysfunction. It is more expensive by the ounce than gold.

The first rhinos will be transported the 6,200 miles to South Australia next year, but the scheme has attracted criticism in some quarters with claims that it is disempowering and patronising, echoing the colonial-era asset-stripping of the past.

Sarah Dennis, the project manager, defended their work. “The plan has always been to repatriate the animals once the situation in Africa improves,” she said. “Until then Australia can offer a good safe haven for the rhino. We have similar climatic conditions, the vet skills to care for them and the security needed to protect them. Building insurance populations is a proven method of conservation and there are numerous examples of it being successful. ”

Wildlife crime is now thought to be the fourth most lucrative form of organised crime. Campaigners in South Africa blame corruption and collusion between rangers, vets, police officers, government officials and even magistrates for undermining the vast number of anti-poaching measures that have been set up to keep the animals safe.

The huge cost of protecting rhinos from poachers has prompted a number of private park owners to volunteer their animals to be part of the project, rather than stand by and see them slaughtered. Wild Africa has been funded by donations but will be open to the public like a safari park.

Australia’s strict quarantine rules mean, however, that it could take a year for the selected rhinos to reach their destination at Monarto Conservation Park, including several months spent in New Zealand. Papers will be granted only to animals that are disease-free and have documents to establish their provenance.

Matt Hayward, a senior lecturer in conservation from the University of Bangor, has criticised the £5.5 million plan as “misdirected neo-colonial conservation” and claimed that the funds would be better spent on education initiatives in Asia and strengthening anti-poaching measures.

The project would hinder rather than help the species’ chance of surviving, he suggested. “Bringing animals from the wild into captivity introduces strong selective pressure for domestication,” he said. “Essentially, those animals that are too wild don’t breed and so don’t pass on their genes, while the sedate, unwild, animals do. Captivity will likely be detrimental to the survival of any captive-bred offspring should they be returned to the wild.”


Originally Published by The Sunday Times



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