The Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines

A Mission to Move

Relocating rhinos in an effort to save the species.

At US$45,000, the ticket is pricey, but it’s for a seat aboard a big plane that carries just five to 10 passengers, each with his or her own spacious quarters, and each lavished with personal attention. The landscape below, once the clouds part, is spectacular: South Africa’s veld followed by Botswana’s great plains.

When the flight lands at Maun International Airport — gateway to safaris in Botswana’s Okavango Delta — a fleet of vehicles carrying government officials and bodyguards awaits the passengers.

Welcome to arguably the world’s most exclusive flying experience: a new, customized route not for vacationing millionaires or Hollywood stars on film shoots, but for endangered rhinos. The plane is a converted Ilyushin Il-76 that transports the animals from South Africa to Botswana to protect them from poaching.

The project enabling it all, Rhinos Without Borders, is the brainchild of Dereck and Beverly Joubert, conservationists and Emmy-award winning filmmakers who fear the species is being hunted to extinction — imperiling not just wildlife diversity but also Africa’s ecotourism.

Capturing and transporting wild, two-ton creatures is a complex exercise in fundraising and logistics, but if successful, the project could almost double Botswana’s rhino population.

“We looked at the plight of rhinos and decided that we needed to concentrate on real solutions for them,” says Dereck, “solutions that we might have the capacity, in our limited way, to put to use.”

Poachers kill a rhino in South Africa every 7.5 hours — outpacing those being born in the wild, he says — so there is urgent need for sanctuary. “We found places in Botswana where this is possible and started the process,” he says, adding that because they don’t like doing small-scale projects, they set a target of moving 100 rhinos. The first 25 have already been relocated, and the project is currently raising money for the other 75.

Capturing and transporting wild, two-ton creatures is a complex exercise in fundraising and logistics, but if successful, the project could almost double Botswana’s rhino population — currently estimated at around 150 — and help safeguard Africa’s safari industry. 

“I believe that the future of African wildlife will be determined by how well we protect three major species: lions, elephants and rhinos,” says Dereck. They are important to the food chain and magnets for tourists, who help fund conservation, he explains.

Rhinos Without Borders is the latest venture of the Jouberts, a husband-and-wife team that has spent decades making wildlife films and raising awareness about big cats, elephants, zebras and other species. They are National Geographic explorers-in-residence and live in a tented camp on the edge of a river in the Duba Plains of the Okavango Delta.

Their Big Cat Initiative — aimed at protecting lions, leopards, cheetahs and tigers — has over the past decade funded 60 projects in 23 countries, supporting conservation efforts and increasing public awareness to help keep the animals in their natural habitats.

Last year, the Jouberts traveled to Beijing to lobby for a ban on ivory imports, arguing that China’s demand for ivory — which is falsely believed to cure ailments such as cancer and low libido — fuels the slaughter of 35,000 elephants per year. Their interview with a celebrity TV talk show host, Yang Lan, drew 200 million viewers.

The Jouberts also joined celebrities and politicians in New York City’s Times Square in June 2015 to watch an industrial rock crusher pulverize a ton of confiscated ivory — a ceremony designed to discourage people from buying ivory, which continues in the United States despite a ban.

Now, the couple have turned their attention to rhinos, they say, because only an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 black rhinos and 20,000 white rhinos remain in Africa, the population devastated by poachers who hack off their horns. It’s a lucrative business: Asian demand for rhino horn, which like ivory is mistakenly thought to have medicinal properties, values it at $65,000 per kilogram.

South Africa holds about 80 percent of Africa’s rhinos but has struggled to protect them; 1,004 were killed in 2014, according to the Oxpeckers Center for Investigative Environmental Journalism. The country’s population density, transport infrastructure and patchy law enforcement help to facilitate the grisly trade, whereas neighboring Botswana, in contrast, has just 2 million people, swathes of remote wilderness and a no-tolerance-for-poaching attitude, says Dereck.

“Botswana has military protection in place, where poachers will confront a fully engaged and equipped military force that has a shoot-to-kill policy.”

There is precedent for relocating wildlife on the continent. The International Fund for Animal Welfare successfully moved up to 83 savanna elephants in Malawi in 2009. However, an effort to move six forest elephants in Ivory Coast last year — in response to human settlement and conflict encroaching on their terrain — resulted in the death of two bulls.

Relocating rhinos is also fraught. First, appropriate candidates need to be identified. Unlike elephants, rhinos do not have a big herd structure, so there is less risk of disrupting group dynamics. But the program does not want to separate females and their offspring or relocate elderly males.

Then, once selected, the rhinos are darted from the air with a sedative, blindfolded, quarantined and monitored for six weeks, during which time they are fed by hand. Once deemed healthy and fit they are loaded in containers on the Ilyushin, which is the largest aircraft ever to land at Maun — a sleepy outpost 630 kilometers north of the capital, Gaborone. 

Escorted by a helicopter, they are then guarded by dozens of Botswanan soldiers, lest poachers ambush the convoy, and trucked for six hours across rivers and rough terrain. The convoy pauses for regular veterinary check-ups until the rhinos reach their new home in an undisclosed location. 

GPS tracking devices have been fitted to the animals already in the wild, and plans are in place to monitor them from the air. The Jouberts hope to relocate the remaining 75 rhinos in 2016. 

Any effort that helps distribute rhinos into well-protected areas is good for the species, says Jeff Barbee, director of environmental watchdog Alliance Earth. And though Dereck admits the stress of relocation may exact a 2 to 5 percent mortality rate, he thinks the risk is worth the effort, given the relative safety of Botswana. “Our first batches are doing well, rhinos have settled down. At a cost of $45,000 to move a rhino and monitor and protect for three years, each one is a large investment — but it is an investment in the future.” One of the relocated rhinos even gave birth last year, he adds.

The Jouberts have raised several million dollars for the relocations through the shareholders of their Great Plains Conservation and private donations to their Great Plains Foundation.

“These donors have supported our move one rhino at a time,” says Dereck. “We’ve also used crowd-funding sites to attract donations as small as a dollar at a time. These small donations have contributed enough to move four rhinos but have also been a vehicle to make people feel empowered in that they are doing something positive to help.” The advocacy group And Beyond has also raised funds.

The Jouberts judge success by the extent to which they help protect Africa’s most charismatic wildlife species — a spectacle they savor each day from their home in the Duba Plains, says Dereck. “We are both happiest discovering a leopard moving through the half light of dawn or waiting for the call of a male lion while we lie, half asleep under the stars,” he says. “This continent has magic and precious value.”

All going well, this corner of Botswana will continue to enshrine that value in the form of heavyweight passengers passing through Maun International Airport, en route to a new home. 

Rory Carroll started his journalistic career with the Irish News in Belfast and has for the past 15 years covered Italy, the Balkans, Africa, Iraq and Latin America, mostly for The Guardian.