Durban - Rhino conservation veteran Ian Player has thrown his weight behind a bold plan to move dozens of South African rhinos to Australia as part of a global “insurance policy” to guard against their extinction.
The Australian Rhino Project, spearheaded by a former South African businessman now living in Australia, as well as the Taronga Zoo, could ultimately result in the establishment of breeding populations in Australia.
The controversial proposal reflects the increasing sense of anxiety and desperation among wildlife conservationists as rhinos continue to be slaughtered at the rate of three a day. It coincides with a separate plan by safari operators to move 100 South African rhinos to Botswana next year.
Following the decimation of tens of thousands of rhinos on the continent, South Africa has been the target of a ferocious assault by poachers and organised syndicates for the past five years. Poaching levels have soared since the start of the “rhino war” in 2008, when 80 animals were butchered for their horns, reaching record levels of more than 1 000 killings last year.
The plan to move a limited number to Australia is based on the rationale that they would be less vulnerable to poaching and corruption, and possibly serve as a genetic seed bank.
“We are not naive enough to believe that poaching of rhinos is not a possibility in Australia. We simply believe that the risks are dramatically lower than anywhere in Africa,” project founder Ray Dearlove wrote in a newsletter to conservation groups and potential funders.
He was working closely with the Taronga Zoo, although other sources have separately raised the possibility of creating an Australian rhino sanctuary twice as large as the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park.
The Imfolozi reserve, which protected the world’s last remaining population of southern white rhinos in the 1890s, later served as the seed bank for Operation Rhino in the 1960s and early 1970s.
During this operation, led by Player and colleagues in the old Natal Parks Board, more than 1 000 white rhinos were translocated to reserves across Africa, as well as to zoos and safari parks in Europe and the US.
Player, 86, told The Mercury that some parts of Australia contained habitat ideal for black and white rhino. The rhino conservation stalwart also said it made sense to support plans to spread out and multiply rhino populations.
He insisted the Australian project was “nothing new”.
“This is something we have been doing since 1961. We took hundreds of rhinos to Zimbabwe in the 1960s and 1970s to restock the Hwange reserve and now we hear that the last one has been killed.”
He also helped move more than 50 rhinos to Maputo Elephant Reserve in Mozambique, but they too had been wiped out
“So, yes, that is an indictment against countries that have allowed them to become extinct, and all the more our responsibility to ensure that there must be animals that can be brought back if necessary.
Player said it would not be an easy road ahead to secure government approvals.
“I even had a battle convincing the Natal Parks Board to allow us to move some of our rhinos from Imfolozi to Kruger.”
Dozens of rhinos were moved to Kruger National Park 40 years ago, which now has the largest rhino population in the world. But this community is threatened by up to 15 separate bands of armed poachers every day.
Dearlove emphasised that the Australian Rhino Project proposal was “still in the very early days” and no applications had been made to either the Australian or South African governments.
The Taronga Zoo in Sydney and Taronga Great Plains Zoo in Dubbo, about 400km north-west of the capital, which have a small population of black and white rhinos, confirmed they had discussed a conservation project with Dearlove and Allan Davies of the Australian Rhino Project.
“At their request, Taronga Zoo last year contributed to the completion of a feasibility study about the concept of importing rhinoceros to boost existing breeding programmes in Australia to assist in securing a future for the species.”
SA National Parks spokesman Isaac Phaahla said he was not aware of any discussion.
The national Department of Environmental Affairs said there had been no formal engagement, but confirmed it had received enquiries about the legal restrictions on exporting rhinos.
Spokesman Albi Modise said the movement of rhinos was regulated strictly by South African law as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. - The Mercury