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World

To Escape Poachers, Rhinos Are Airlifted To Safer Areas

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Black rhinos have been the target of a mass poaching frenzy in Africa. In South Africa, nearly 400 have been killed this year. It's because their horns are in high demand, even for something as simple as curing a hangover.

DU TOIT: If you finished your evening of drinking, you will cap it off by showing ostentatiously that you can actually supply your drinking pals with this very expensive rhino horn potion.

GREENE: That's Raoul du Toit. He runs the Lowveld Rhino Trust based in Zimbabwe, where a single rhino horn can fetch $4,000. In an effort to save the rhinos, du Toit and his group have been airlifting them to safer places.

How hard is it to get a rhino on a plane and move it? I mean, tell me what this is like.

DU TOIT: Well, it's expensive. It's not really hard. I mean, a black rhino weighs over a ton, and it's, you know, a big, wild animal that needs a special crate to contain it and special drugs to sedate the animal during the translocation. The problem is just that airlifts cost a lot of money. We also obviously translocate rhinos over shorter distances on trucks, which is a lot cheaper. And moving rhinos from areas that are unsafe to more safe areas or moving rhinos from areas in which they've reached a population level that is no longer viable for ongoing effective breeding, moving them to consolidate them with remnant animals in other areas to build them up to viable breeding sizes, that's done all the time and is a very important part of our conservation strategy.

GREENE: How long does it take for rhinos to develop these stable populations where they will be breeding when you take rhinos out of kind of a familiar habitat and put them with other animals in a new environment?

DU TOIT: A lot depends on how you choose your animals for translocation. If you choose rhinos that come from a population in which they have developed social bonds, that they know each other and they move together to a new area, they will re-establish their social grouping very quickly and get on with surviving and breeding in the new habitat quite well. If, on the other hand, you chucked together rhinos from very different habitats, from different groups where there isn't the social bonding prior to the translocation, you can have a lot of mortality. You can have limited breeding. And that can take five to 10 years before the animals sort themselves out and become really productive as a breeding group.

GREENE: I've read that another strategy for trying to protect these animals is actually to remove their horns so that there's not that valuable thing drawing poachers. I mean, the idea of removing an animal's horns, I mean, is sad in a way.

DU TOIT: It is bad. I mean, a dehorned rhino doesn't look, obviously, as natural as an animal with its fore horn. But we have to realize that it doesn't actually hurt the animal. Cutting the horn off is like cutting one's fingernails. There are no nerves in the horn. Then, of course, when it comes to defense against predators, a rhino that's got a horn stub is still able to whack a lion or hyena pretty hard. It's like, you know, getting hit by a bus.

GREENE: I wonder about Botswana, where you've been moving some of these animals. Why that country and how has the effort been going so far?

DU TOIT: Well, we see Botswana as a range state with a lot of potential. It's got positive socioeconomic factors. It's got a stable society with good law enforcement and a high degree of civil obedience. The factors that drive poaching - the poverty, unemployment, et cetera - are less evident in Botswana than in a number of the other countries in this region. And that means that the ingredients are there, combined with high tourism interests, to create a successful black rhino reintroduction scenario.

GREENE: Raoul du Toit runs the Lowveld Rhino Trust in Zimbabwe. Thanks so much for talking to us. We appreciate it.

DU TOIT: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.