Botswana’s latest spate of immigrants aren’t human, but precious rhinos susceptible to poaching.

Under the watchful eyes of Rhinos Without Borders (RWB), 10 white rhinos made the nearly 2,000-kilometre journey on land and by air in late April 2015, from what is infamously regarded the most treacherous poaching zone in Africa — South Africa — to Botswana, the area with the lowest poaching rate.

The contrasts are glaring. South Africa, home to 53 million people, lost at least 1,004 rhinos to poachers in 2013, compared with just four in 2003. Botswana, with a population of just 2 million, has banned all commercial hunting and puts antipoaching in the hands of the Botswana Defence Force, which in turn employs a “shoot to kill policy”.

With illegal killing at such an alarming rate, rhinos in South Africa could be wiped out in five to 10 years, warned Dereck Joubert, CEO of Great Plains Conservation, in an interview with National Geographic in August 2014. The Jouberts — Dereck and his wife Beverly — are also National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence.

That inaugural translocation by RWB, a collaboration between luxury experiential travel company andBeyond and Great Plains Conservation, is just the first of many, for they have set a target of translocating at least 100. Both entities are respected tourism players; Great Plains is part of National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World and operates seven safari camps in Botswana and Kenya while andBeyond has footprint in 19 countries, of which 15 are in Africa.

Here’s a look at the staggering numbers in RWB’s world of rhino translocation.

The numbers that tell the rhino translocation story

 

Translocation process initiated months in advance
Months before the move itself, identification of the rhinos take place. As soon as a rhino is deemed suitable for translocation, a logbook containing details including age, gender and microchip implant number as well as an image of the animal will be created. Generally, rhinos that are sick, old or close to giving birth are not translocation candidates.

The initial group of 10 rhinos was herded over two days. A helicopter is used to dart each rhino with a tranquiliser; when the animal is sedated, blood samples and data are collected. Next, an antidote is applied and before the sedative wears out completely it is blindfolded, roped and walked into a container, then driven to a quarantine centre where it will spend about 50 days to ensure it is adjusted and at its peak of health.

Once the quarantine is complete, the rhinos are sedated, placed in steel crates and flown to Botswana in an Ilyushin IL-76, which has a maximum load of 48,000 kilograms. Upon touchdown, the rhinos in their crates are put onto trucks and escorted by armed guards to the intended enclosure. Six of the rhinos in the first airlift were released immediately, while two cows and their calves were kept in a pre-release boma (enclosure) and released a couple days later.

Expensive effort
Les Carlisle, project manager of RWB and group conservation manager at andBeyond, shared that the project is “well on our way to funding for the next 10”. However, the price tag for each rhino immigrant is a hefty one, at about US$50,000. According to Carlisle, the bulk of the cost goes to the flight, enabling post-release monitoring of the rhinos in Botswana, and enforcing security in the new homes. The resources for animal capture and the quarantine period can amount to 25% of the total cost.

Last month, RWB received a boost from Quotient TravelPlanner, a Singapore-based specialist in private customised travel for individuals, families and corporate groups. Quotient pledged to support the cost of translocating one rhino, as part of its Rhinos Can Fly corporate social responsibility initiative.

Translocation itself is not new. Rhino populations in South Africa — the country boasts over 80% of the 26,000 or so rhinos in the continent of Africa — are continuously managed “to maintain maximum breeding potential”, Carlisle noted.

“Over the last 10 years about 200 to 300 rhinos are traded annually from both national and private game reserves”, he said.

But RWB is possibly the largest rhino translocation project to date. And the target of 100 could swell to 250, the Jouberts told Wall Street Journal in June this year.