Welcoming committee: From left, Elaine Bensted, CEO of Zoos South Australia, and The Australian Rhino Project directors Allan Davies, Paul White and Mark Stanbridge at Monarto Zoo, about 60km from Adelaide in south Australia. There are nearly 50 rhinos at Australian zoos and safari parks. Picture: KIRSTIN SCHOLTZ
Welcoming committee: From left, Elaine Bensted, CEO of Zoos South Australia, and The Australian Rhino Project directors Allan Davies, Paul White and Mark Stanbridge at Monarto Zoo, about 60km from Adelaide in south Australia. There are nearly 50 rhinos at Australian zoos and safari parks. Picture: KIRSTIN SCHOLTZ

The first group of at least 30 SA rhinos is set to emigrate to Australia in 2019 to help ensure the survival of the species.

Zookeepers and conservationists have been fencing and vegetating a 560ha open-plains area for a new "insurance population" of African rhinos at Monarto Zoo, about 60km from Adelaide in south Australia.

It seems likely that the animals will have to spend up to a year at the Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch, New Zealand, because of rigorous biosecurity and quarantine requirements by the Australian government.

The Australian Rhino Project was established in 2013, aiming to relocate a significant population of rhino to a separate continent because of the horn poaching crisis, which has led to 1,000 rhino killings annually in SA for five consecutive years.

While the project has been criticised by some as a "neo-colonial" venture, SA rhino conservationist Ian Player voiced strong support for it before he died in 2014.

Home from home: This is part of the 560ha open-plains area at Monarto Zoo that has been fenced off for the rhinos. Picture: KIRSTIN SCHOLTZY
Home from home: This is part of the 560ha open-plains area at Monarto Zoo that has been fenced off for the rhinos. Picture: KIRSTIN SCHOLTZY

He said some parts of Australia contained ideal habitat for black and white rhinos and thought it made sense to spread out and multiply the species to ensure their future at a time of crisis. Initially, there were reports that as many as 200 rhinos could be moved to a 250,000ha reserve in northern Queensland.

The ambitions were scaled down to about 80 animals and it now appears the plan is to shift 30 rhinos to Australia over the next few years.

Sydney-based project manager Sarah Dennis says the proposed move is "just one element in the collective international fight to protect [the] African rhinoceros from extinction".

Australian and New Zealand zoos have "an exceptional reputation and long history in managing and successfully breeding rhinos", she says. There are now nearly 50 at Australian zoos and safari parks.

"Our belief is that the rhinos should be located in an open-plain area, and this is the reason why we have specifically developed, in conjunction with our conservation partners, open-plain areas that are suitable for them," Dennis says.

Despite being established five years ago, she says no rhinos had been moved so far under the auspices of The Australian Rhino Project.

Dennis says preparations for the relocation involve many steps, including the construction of quarantine facilities; government liaison; establishing processes and protocols; working with individuals and authorities in multiple countries; and establishing appropriate sources of funding.

"We are now required to work with a third-party country, New Zealand, to facilitate the quarantining process for entry into Australia. While this process has been prolonged, we feel it has been extremely important to establish sound partnerships, an expert team and to work with the required regulations of all countries involved," she says.

Dennis says the project has worked with experts who provided insight into rhino management. "These experts have been assisting us in working through the most suitable genetics of the rhinos that will be relocated to ensure we manage genetic diversity of the existing rhino population in Australia. All rhinos will be sourced within SA and outside the tuberculosis exclusion zone," she says.

At the project’s annual general meeting in December 2017, officials said the rhinos would have to undergo six to 12 months of quarantine testing, most likely in New Zealand.

"The Australian authorities have been supportive of the New Zealand quarantine option and have been involved in discussions as to the suitability of this location," says Dennis. "Our priority will be to ensure the best route for animal wellbeing. Timing and cost greatly depend on the final dates of the relocation and we are working with several options in terms of routes and … airline partners."

Project chairman Allan Davies says "the longer-term plan is to have a stable herd of rhinos located on a large property in outback Australia".

The rhinos will remain the property of the source nation, and after the poaching situation has stabilised will be repatriated to Africa.

Writing on the academic news platform The Conversation, Australian biologist Bill Laurance notes that his country is known for the rule of law and minimal wildlife poaching.

"I am not suggesting that rhinos be allowed to roam free in Australia … they could degrade native ecosystems and pose a danger to people. Rather, rhinos should be contained in cattle stations or other enclosed areas.

"And I am not suggesting that harbouring rhinos in Australia would mean reducing efforts to save them in the wild or conserve their crucial habitats. Indeed, preserving rhinos without protecting their native ecosystems is like saving a few shiny baubles from Christmas, while throwing away the Christmas tree that held them.

'Semiwild or managed populations'

"Rather, the idea would be to establish semiwild or managed populations that could buffer rhinos against global extinction, and provide public education and raise money.

"Any effort that failed to provide revenue to conserve rhinos and their native habitat, especially if it competed for funding with current conservation initiatives, would be an undesirable outcome," he says.

But other ecologists raised concerns about the project in 2017 in an article in the journal Conservation Letters.

"Taking biodiversity assets, like rhinos, for ‘safe-keeping’ in the West is as patronising and disempowering as the historical appropriation of cultural artefacts by colonising nations. We believe this is misdirected neo-colonial conservation," wrote Australian-born researcher Matt Hayward and colleagues Graham Kerley and Marietjie Landman (Nelson Mandela University), William Ripple (Oregon State University), Stephen Garnett (Charles Darwin University) and Roan Plotz (Victoria University of Wellington).

The SA and Australian environmental affairs departments did not respond to queries.

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