A black rhino stares at the camera at Etosha National Park, Namibia. Picture: 123RF/SIMON EEMAN
A black rhino stares at the camera at Etosha National Park, Namibia. Picture: 123RF/SIMON EEMAN

Almost 50 years after they were hunted to local extinction, black rhinos will again roam the wilds of the Central African nation of Chad, the latest chapter in a movement to bring big mammals back to former ranges on the continent.

On Thursday, six rhinos will be flown to Chad’s Zakouma National Park from Port Elizabeth, sedated and confined in special crates to ensure they don’t cause a commotion mid-air.

The initiative comes against the backdrop of a poaching crisis that saw more than 1,000 rhinos slain in SA in 2017 to meet demand for their horns in Asia, where they are prized for their alleged medicinal properties.

With 18,000 white rhino and 2,000 of the smaller black rhino, SA is home to about 80% of the global population of the pachyderms, making it the springboard for re-introduction efforts elsewhere.

"By establishing a viable and secure population of rhino in Chad, we are contributing to the expansion of the rhino population in Africa, and the survival of a species that has faced high levels of poaching," said Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa.

No rhino has been seen in Chad since the early 1970s.

African Parks, a non-government organisation (NGO) that runs Chad’s Zakouma and other reserves, has also re-introduced rhinos and lions from SA to Rwanda and is planning to relocate lions to Malawi.

"We have been using the history of conservation success in SA to repopulate other areas in Africa," Andrew Parker, director of conservation at African Parks, told Reuters. The Chad-bound rhinos were in the fortified enclosures or bomas for three months in preparation for their long haul.

The animals have been fed lucerne, a highly nutritious hay, for the past few weeks. It will be initially provided to them in Chad as they adjust their diet to new trees and shrubs.

Security has been tight: the animals’ location was kept under wraps, they will be given a police escort to the airport, and in Chad they will be de-horned and fitted with transponders.

Jumbo-sized logistics and planning go into such an operation: the animals were tranquilised in Marakele National Park in northern SA then brought to Addo, near Port Elizabeth, which has better facilities.

Cranes hoisted the crates containing the rhinos onto flat-bed trucks and they will be monitored carefully by vets on the plane for the 15-hour trip, which involves two stops. The hope is that the two bulls and four cows will establish a breeding herd which will be the most northern wild population of the species in Africa.

Reuters

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