When we first spoke to the dedicated team behind the Rhinos Without Borders initiative last year, they were in the throes of something big. The plan was to relocate 100 vulnerable rhinos from South Africa to safer pastures in Botswana. If successful, the move would become the biggest rhino relocation in history. Now, just seven months later, the first ten rhinos have landed safely in their new home, a journey that involved the largest aircraft ever to land at Botswana's Maun International Airport, two helicopters, several trucks, a crane and 60 armed soldiers.

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The rhinos were captured in various game reserves across South Africa, the first step in their journey to a safer home in Botswana. Image: Beverly Joubert/Rhinos Without Borders.

With one rhino poached on average every seven hours or so in Africa, and over 500 killed for their horns in South Africa this year alone, the mission couldn't have started at a more crucial time. The project is being spearheaded by wildlife filmmakers and conservationists Dereck and Beverly Joubert, and also involves conservation tourism group andBeyond. The team hopes to have the remaining 90 animals safely relocated within nine months. 

"There are many factors that make Botswana ideal for these animals, including a ban on hunting implemented last year," they say. "There is also very limited access to Bostwana's wilderness areas. In the greater Okavango region, you cannot simply drive into the area undetected as roads are restricted."

And thanks to limited access by air, private helicopters (which are often used in poaching operations in neighbouring South Africa) also cannot reach its remote wilderness. While this is great news for the safety of the rhinos in their new home, it also made the relocation particularly tricky.

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Each animal was selected from South African reserves that are crowded or facing intense poaching pressures. Image: Beverly Joubert/Rhinos Without Borders.
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After capture, the animals were moved to an undisclosed quarantine area in South Africa before their journey to Botswana. Image: Beverly Joubert/Rhinos Without Borders.

Weighing up to two and a half tons, adult rhinos aren't easy to pack into boxes and move across national borders. All said and done, the translocation process costs an astounding $45,000 per animal. "As a deep sign of appreciation, when he was released, one bull charged the container he had been cooped up in, putting a massive dent in it," recounts Dereck Joubert. 

The journey for these ten rhino pioneers began in various game reserves across South Africa, and involved a quarantine period during which they where monitored for disease and fitted with microchips for tracking. Finally, the animals were sedated, packed into crates and loaded into a cargo plane bound for Botswana. "Each animal was hand selected from reserves that are crowded or are facing intense poaching threats," the team explains.

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Crates housing the rhinos are offloaded from the cargo plane at Maun International Airport in Botswana. Image: Beverly Joubert/Rhinos Without Borders.
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Image: Beverly Joubert/Rhinos Without Borders.
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After their flight, the rhinos were trucked deep into the Botswana wilderness. Image: Beverly Joubert/Rhinos Without Borders.

It was a long ride, but the rhinos weren't alone: to deter poachers, they were escorted by 60 armed guards and two helicopter scouts. You might think that flying these endangered heavyweights would be the tough part, but things got even trickier on the ground: when one of the moving trucks lost a wheel along the way, a crane had to be brought in to transfer its unprecedented load to a new truck, writes Brian Clark Howard for National Geographic. 

Thankfully, after an immense amount of work and people power, the rhinos were safety released into their new homes – less than 24 hours after taking off from South Africa.  

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Rhinos wait for release after arriving at their destination in an undisclosed and remote part of Botswana. Image: Beverly Joubert/Rhinos Without Borders.
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Running free! Image: Beverly Joubert/Rhinos Without Borders.

The goal is for the translocated rhinos to form a seed population in Botswana, eventually expanding in number and genetic diversity. "[They will be] protected by the latest technology and a specialised anti-poaching unit," says Joubert.

"We are proud yet humbled by [this] opportunity," he adds. "Sad that it is necessary, but grateful to everyone that has supported us thus far, and hopeful that this small step in conservation is breeding hope for a species on its way back from the brink of an unacceptable extinction."

If you'd like to help the next group of rhinos travel safety to the Botswana wilderness, check out the project's fundraising website.

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The team hopes the new arrivals will establish a seed population in Botswana, and that one day their descendants might help repopulate regions decimated by poaching. Image: Beverly Joubert/Rhinos Without Borders.

Top header image: Beverly Joubert