With World Rhino Day behind us and now the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos just up ahead, our focus is firmly on all things rhino, especially conservation initiatives designed to give these iconic animals a fighting chance in the face of rampant poaching. One such project is Rhinos without Borders – an ambitious new plan to move (and by move we mean airlift!) 100 rhinos from poaching hotspots in South Africa to safe, secret locations in the wilderness of Botswana.

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The project is being spearheaded by wildlife filmmakers and conservationists Dereck and Beverly Joubert, and also involves an international group of conservation organisations and other partners. It's to be a rhino relocation on an epic scale, the biggest ever attempted. It's also an effort to create a modern-day Noah’s Ark for rhino genes.  

To find out more about the project, we recently chatted to someone who's been living and breathing it since its inception. Verity Sutherland, who is the Jouberts' personal assistant at Great Plains Conservation (one of the tourism and conservation groups involved), dishes on everything from the mind-boggling logistics involved in moving multi-tonne herbivores to her emotional investment in the project. 

How did this project come about?

Wildlife filmmakers and conservationists Dereck and Beverly Joubert have spent the last 30 years fighting for Africa’s wildlife. They often say: "Wilderness without wildlife is simply space." And while they have focused much of their efforts on big cats and elephants, rhinos have never been far off their radar. With one rhino being poached every seven to eight hours in Africa, they knew they had to do something about it – and do it quickly. Rhinos are a vital part of the ecosystem and to lose them would not only be completely devastating, as any loss of a species is, it would also negatively impact all wildlife in Africa, since they're an essential part a delicate ecosystem. What's more, poaching – no matter the species targeted – must be fought, as poachers who come for rhino horn will also take out any valuable or threatening animal in their path. When we fight for rhinos we fight for all wildlife in Africa, and when we take on a project to protect rhinos, we do so with the intention to create a protective umbrella for all wildlife in these wilderness areas. 

“When we fight for rhinos we fight for all wildlife in Africa, and when we take on a project to protect rhinos, we do so to create a protective umbrella for all wildlife in these areas.”

Nevertheless, there were certain triggers that led to the evolution of this particular project. Dereck and Beverly have been a part of a number of rhino rescues in the past and have witnessed the devastation of rhino poaching firsthand, as well as the positive impact of relocating rhinos to Botswana. Before this particular project even began, Dereck was being approached by desperate private landowners who could no longer keep their rhinos safe. Since then, the numbers of rhinos that we plan to save has gone up to at least 100, and we have teamed up with an equally passionate company, &Beyond, to make this initiative a reality. 

What are the time frames? How long will it take to move all 100 rhinos?

We have broken the project up into four key phases. 2014 has been a year for fundraising. Then, capturing, translocating and releasing the animals will begin early next year and take nine months depending on capture rate, seasonal temperatures, locations of release, suitability, flood waters for release locations and the readiness of top-level anti-­poaching teams and technology. We'll also be assisting after the release and carrying out ongoing community education and outreach. 

Can you tell us a little bit about the logistics involved? Moving one hundred rhinos is no mean feat!

You are absolutely correct. In fact, we believe it is the largest single translocation ever attempted. However, we will not be moving all 100 at the same time – that would be a logistical nightmare, and, most of all, it would threaten the safety of the rhinos we are trying to save. Therefore, we will be moving the animals in 'batches' of no more than nine or ten at a time. Each rhino will be sedated by the experienced capture team (including veterinarians), using helicopters and tranquiliser darts. The rhinos will be moved into crates and taken to well-protected enclosures where they will stay in quarantine for six weeks.  After this period, each group is flown to Maun in Botswana and then moved to secret locations in the Okavango Delta where they will be housed in temporary bomas (enclosures) and released slowly over a period of two weeks. Each stage of the translocation will involve military assistance to ensure the safety and protection of these rhinos throughout their journey.

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Once relocated, the rhinos will spend time in bomas (or enclosures) before slowly being released into the Botswana wilderness. Image: Beverly Joubert

Where are the rhinos coming from?

Unfortunately we cannot reveal exact locations for security reasons, but they will come from reserves, private and public, across South Africa. We aim to move only small pockets of rhinos from areas with the highest poaching levels, so as not to have a negative impact on these existing populations, while also ensuring that the gene pool is kept as broad as possible and that rhinos at the greatest risk are saved from poachers. 

What knowledge and experience from past rhino relocations is being taken on board with this initiative? Have relocation techniques evolved over time?

We will be drawing on the knowledge and experience of the best and most reliable experts in the South African game capture industry, many of whom will make up our core team for the capture, translocation and release. There is no point in reinventing the wheel on rhino translocation methods (as it happens all the time in and around South Africa), but we have decided to go the route that we believe will be the safest for the rhinos. Our partners on this project, &Beyond, moved six rhinos from South Africa to Botswana in 2013, so we will also be drawing on their knowledge and experience throughout the process. Dereck and Beverly have also been an integral part of a number of rhino relocations the past.

Tranquilising and moving rhinos over long distances can be stressful and possibly dangerous for the animals. What is done to minimise risk? Are these risks something you have to weigh up against the bigger risk of letting the rhinos stay where they are?

Moving large animals is never without risk – overdosage of sedative and injuries sustained during transport are always a concern and on average contribute to a 10% accident rate.  However, there is a robust rhino capture and movement industry in South Africa and the science behind it is very well known. Our translocation team is made up of translocation veterans who are experienced in every aspect of this operation. We will take every precaution to limit these types of accidents. 

We are also planning to fly rather than truck the rhinos, which (while more costly to the project) will mean that the rhinos spend less time in transit, reducing the chance of accidents and decreasing the stress levels. 

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South Africa has already seen a tipping point this year, where rhino deaths (due to rampant poaching) surpass the rate of births.

The rhinos we're moving are coming from poaching hotspots, and with around 100 rhinos poached in just over one month in South Africa, their chances of survival are slim if they remain where they are. We are in a catastrophic curve of rhino poaching as a continent and experts predict extinctions within five years. In fact, at a recent international rhino conference, 2017 was considered a plausible extinction date. We have already seen a tipping point this year (where rhino deaths surpass the rate of births). If we do nothing, their fate will be sealed. 

Our project is also about more than saving these 100 lives alone – this is a modern-day Noah’s ark for rhino genes and we hope that this 'seed' population does more than just survive ... we want to be able to give them a chance to breed naturally in the wild and flourish to ensure the future of the species. This small group represents only a very small percentage of the current South African rhino population (which stands at under 20,000 white rhinos and around 1,752 black rhinos), but they do hold the promise of making a significant and positive impact on those populations if moved to safe havens and protected.

The South African government recently announced plans to relocate up to 500 rhinos from the poaching epicentre of the Kruger National Park to safer areas. Does this suggest that it sees relocations as a good strategy going forward?

We believe the government, as well as the majority of conservationists in South Africa, see this not only as a good strategy, but an essential one. There is no doubt that moving highly valuable assets out of one dense and vulnerable pool as a way to distribute risk is a viable conservation method that is particularly relevant today for rhinos.

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What makes Botswana so safe for rhinos compared to South Africa or another African country?

There are many factors that come into play, including a ban on hunting implemented last year. 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). There's also limited access by air, and private helicopters, which have been used in poaching operations in South Africa, cannot access the area. 

Botswana also happens to be far away from the major exit points for illegal trade, like Mombasa in Kenya and via ports in South Africa.  

There is also the large number of anti-poaching patrols that cover the borders in key places (the country's military has a shoot-to-kill policy against poachers). Few firearm licenses are issued in the country and both night scopes and silencers are illegal, making access to poaching equipment difficult. 

Levels of corruption also come into play here. Reports suggest that it takes at least some level of corruption to smuggle a rhino horn: officials have to bribed and the risk of being caught needs to be reduced to make the smuggling division of the chain of illegal trade viable. Botswana was recently named the African country with the lowest corruption levels. Crucially, there's also strong political will in the country to grow and protect rhino populations. 

It’s reasonable to assume that moving a large number of rhinos could potentially attract the attention of poachers. What are some of the plans for keeping the rhinos safe once they arrive at their new destination?

It's unlikely they'll turn their attention to a country where poaching rhinos will be very difficult and risky for all of the reasons mentioned above.

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"For me, this project is all about hope." Image: Beverly Joubert

Sadly, South Africa is likely to remain a hotspot as long as it has the highest rhino population in Africa (often fenced into small, high-density reserves, making them easy to locate), and as long as the potential reward for poachers continues to outweigh the risk of getting caught.

What are the ultimate hopes for this project? What would you like to have achieved once it’s all done?

For me, personally, this project is all about hope – for the future of the rhino and for those fighting the war on wildlife poaching, and to be a part of that gives me a purpose and drives me like nothing has before. For these 100 rhinos, our hope is that they will breed and expand in number in Botswana, while the mixed bloodlines will create stronger DNA. We hope that Botswana will continue to prove a safe haven for rhinos and other wildlife. We also hope that one day other parts of Africa will become safe enough that the descendants of these rhinos will help repopulate regions once decimated by poaching. It would be wonderful for South Africa and Botswana to further strengthen their bond through this project and for it to be beacon of hope for others around the world also fighting the poaching crisis. However, it is hard to think of any definitive 'end' to this initiative, as moving the rhinos is just one part of the process – the rhinos' protection and our work with communities that surround wilderness areas will be ongoing. But ultimately we aim to get to a point where we can stand back and allow the people of Botswana to become the rhinos' primary custodians and continue to protect this population and the future of the species.

How can the average person help this project?

There are many ways to get involved. The simplest is just to spread the word about the campaign with friends and family, and any companies that might be interested in sponsorship. You can also visit the Trevolta fundraising website. We hope to raise $8 million for the project, of which 40% will go towards the actual capture, transport, holding, quarantine and release of the animals. The remaining funds will be split between future conservation efforts and setting up strong anti-poaching and security infrastructure in Botswana. Every donation made on our campaign page is rewarded with a prize (from t-shirts and necklaces to fine art prints and even nights at the Great Plains Conservation camps). 

Other ways you can help: 

The Origami Army: When you donate just $1 on our fundraising site, you receive an origami rhino template. We're encouraging people to take origami rhino selfies around the world (and share them with the hashtags #RhinosWithoutBorders and #RhinoMove) to raise awareness of the campaign.

The Global March for Elephants and Rhinos: Join people from hundreds of cities across the world on Saturday 4th October as we march as one voice to raise awareness for elephants and rhinos. Find your nearest march here. 

Start your own fundraising event: Whether you organise a marathon or sell lemonade at the beach, get creative and help us raise fund for rhinos. To find out more about organising an event or fundraiser, contact Rhinos Without Borders.