The audacious plan to airlift 80 rhinos to Australia

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A South African expatriate’s desire to protect rhinoceroses from poachers is driving an unusual plan to breed the giant animals down under.

It’s sometimes said that people look like their pets. But that’s not the case with Ray Dearlove.

He’s a a statuesque slab of fellow, built like a prop forward with the weathered features of somebody who’s spent most of his life under the sun in South Africa and Australia. When he speaks, you listen.

Image caption Ray Dearlove (pictured) plans to establish a population of rhinos on a reserve somewhere in Australia – Photo by Ray Dearlove

Snapping around his ankles at his home in suburban Sydney is a somewhat yappy little terrier.

They make an unlikely pair that pours water on the pet theory.

Yet “Rhino Ray” does bear some resemblance to the beast he loves more than any other.

Photo by Shannon Benson – Record numbers of white rhinos have been killed by poachers in recent years, according to the WWF

“I have a deep passion for rhinos,” the 67-year-old tells me.

“The rhino is the closest thing you will ever see to the dinosaur. They’re incredible animals.”

‘Far-fetched’

Now Mr Dearlove wants to bring rhinos on the same long journey to Australia that he made three decades ago

He’s leading an ambitious project to airlift 80 white rhinoceroses from Southern Africa to Australia in order to protect the animals from poaching.

“Some would say it’s far-fetched, just the idea of another dumb South African,” he admits with a smile.

“But with rhinos we’re close to a tipping point right now. We need to start thinking laterally.”


Mr Dearlove’s love of the rhinoceros can be traced to his childhood. He was born and raised in the north-east of South Africa, close to the border with Mozambique.

“The Kruger National Park was on our doorstep so most of our holidays as kids were spent there,” he says, referring to one of Africa’s biggest game reserves.

Image copyright Cameron Spencer – Mr Dearlove spent his childhood holidays at Kruger National Park and was fascinated by the rhinos there

“It was pretty wild at those times when we were little people. I grew up loving animals.”Cruel harvest

It’s estimated that poachers killed about 1,300 rhinos for their horns last year in Africa.

The reason is that rhino horn is literally worth more than its weight in gold.

It sells for about US$60,000 (£41,000) a kilo, sometimes more, with much of it ending up in China and Vietnam where it’s believed – most would say wrongly – to have medicinal properties.

Mr Dearlove says there have been numerous attempts to slow down the poaching trade.

“They’ve tried dehorning the rhinos but it didn’t work. The poachers would still shoot the animals just to dig out a couple of inches of the stump of the horn from their skulls,” he says.

Image copyright Jon Donnison – Mr Dearlove wants to put the rhinos in a climate that’s as close to Africa’s as he can find in Australia

Conservationists have also tried injecting dye into the horns to devalue them, but with limited success.

“The Australian Rhino Project is about spreading the risk,” Mr Dearlove says.

Safe haven

The plan is to airlift 80 white rhinos to Australia over the next four years, with the first batch of 20 to be brought over by the end of 2016.

“They will go to an environment as close to the African climate as we can find and as close to the African vegetation as we can find,” he says.

“They need to be in a secure environment where they can breed.”

Mr Dearlove is keeping the exact location close to his chest for now, but says his dream is to one day to have a smaller version of the Kruger National Park somewhere in Australia.

The target is to increase the size of the herd from 80 rhinos to about 130 before eventually repatriating them to Africa, if and when the poaching situation improves.

But rhinos take time to breed.

They have a gestation period of about 16 months and only have one calf at a time.

Usually they will wait three to four years before having more offspring.

Image copyright Getty Images – Authorities have tried cutting horns off rhinos to make them less appealing to poachers, but the killing has continued

“With such a high rate of poaching, it’s going to take time to catch up,” says Mr Dearlove.

And he acknowledges the project has been bureaucratically challenging.

“We started this whole thing three years ago and I had no idea it was going to take this long,” he says.

But he says the governments in both Australia and South Africa have been supportive.

Beastly logistics

“Australia’s main concern is bio-security. They take the pristine nature of the country very seriously,” he says, referring to Australia’s notoriously strict quarantine controls.

Initially there was some concern about the animals potentially bringing in foot-and-mouth disease, but those fears have now been addressed.

Image copyright Ian Waldie / Getty Images – Mr Dearlove says the rhinos will clear Australia’s strict quarantine laws

“They don’t want a situation like they’ve had with rabbits, cane toads and camels,” he says, referring to species whose populations spiralled out of control after being introduced from overseas.

With a raised eyebrow and a chuckle, Mr Dearlove admits he wouldn’t see it as a problem if rhinos were breeding like rabbits.

But could the poaching problem find its way to Australia? He says it’s possible but unlikely.

“Nowhere is totally safe. But I do think Australia is safer than pretty much anywhere else,” he says.

“Border security is a major focus for both state and federal governments. There is no poaching in Australia today, thank God, and there is no comparable poverty.

“I really believe that if one rhino got poached in this country all hell would break loose. The Australians would just find it unacceptable.”

So what of the logistics of getting them here?

Image copyright Getty Images – Authorities in Kenya set fire to a huge quantity of rhino horns, elephant tusks and ivory figurines in April

A white rhino weighs about 2500kg.

“When we first started I thought you could just stick them in the hold of a Qantas jet,” he says. “But they’re too tall to fit through the doors of the hold.”

Special cargo planes will need to be used for the 11,000km journey from Johannesburg to Sydney, at an estimated cost of about US$60,000 per rhino.

But Mr Dearlove believes it’s worth it.

“What price do you put on saving a species from extinction?” he asks.

This article was first published by BBC News on 10 May 2016.

 

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neil edwards
neil edwards

Well all hell didn’t seem to break loose when the Japanese whaling ship was caught poaching Minke Whales in the protected Antarctic Ocean.

Kobus Hinsbeeck

Dearlove is such a lovely name. Shouldn't we all love this idea dearly? Finally somebody with an alternative! (The only thing EVER that actually works) Now: Let's sit back and watch the Aussies legalize rhino horn and farm these beasts! Ever thought about cows, canaries, Indian elephant, camels, budgies or sheep? Yes, they were all wild once, and without learning from them, loving them and giving them LIVE COMMERCIAL VALUE they would all have disappeared long ago. Oh yes: What are those thingies dragging Father Christmas around called again? In New Zealand deer are farmed like cattle, herded onto trucks… Read more »

Kathleen Colley

Let's get it done asap – the rhinos are dying everyday as we speak! It's a huge project but it's on the go, so let's go! Yay, can't wait to see rhinos in Oz. We shall care for these beautiful African goliaths, and hopefully in years to come, when people in Asia stop believing in fairytales, we can restock the African veldt.

Brigit Earl

great project, i only hope that Australia's burocracy will be helpful as they usually take a stance against anything alive that is not considered native Australian from over 200 years ago. A somewhat old hat attitude in todays global world.

Dominique Osh

It's a wonderful idea and valient effort to save and protect the Rhino's we have left, hell, take them all and protect them until we put a stop to this insanity. My only concerns that there would be strict trusts set up, so any future Rhino's don't end up as game for hunters.

Grace Neff

I really hope this comes about as we have already lost to many.

Marilyn Ashman

Australia "might have to" become, The New Africa 🙂 <3 . Thank You!! Mr. Ray Dearlove 🙂 <3

Maria Manuela Lopes

Para salvar os Rinos todas as ideias são boas espero que esta resulte.

James Hamilton Bird

I think its a great idea and for it. The sooner the better they can bred freely .

Michele Jankelow

The situation is near dire in South Africa and with a government that is as corrupt as it is ineffective, yet again private enterprise has to step in. I admire people of great passion and good intent. If this comes together and we can contribute to saving the species, that would be wonderful. John Varty is doing this with tigers in South Africa! People with responsible passion and respect are always welcome!

Brenda Robinson

Great idea, they need saving.

Nancy Jakeman

An audacious and wonderful plan… to bring white rhinos to Australia, circumventing their demise from poaching. Many of us in Australia will greet this project with thankfulness. I don't quite know how it can be made clear that there are no medicinal properties in rhino horns but caring for the well being of populations of nations where people are starving or struggling to exist would lessen the desire to poach.

Suzanna van Houwelingen

Excellent idea to take these precious Rhinos to another continent. After this craze of thinking that the horn has medicinal powers. has stopped, as it did with shark fins many years ago, then we can import them back to this country. But by all means take them to safer places. Only some should be left here but in very protected places.