For conservationists it was a day of reckoning. From the start, they had sounded a degree of alarm: few know exactly how many of the critically endangered white rhinos remain in the wild.
At its breeding facility in Namibia, South Africa’s National Parks Service announced its intentions to remove 19 white rhinos from the country, suggesting a stampede of rhinos could descend upon the location where the individual animals will go.
But somehow, despite the heaviest animal transport in history, the transfer did not go as planned. Instead, after a lucky few managed to escape unharmed, six of the rhinos were captured unharmed Tuesday by two South African flight crews in air ambulances. Officials lost track of the remaining animals, and an hour later authorities announced the remaining four had escaped.
“Whole rhinos on the move in one convoy! Never have I seen anything like this,” Twitter user PaddysGrains wrote Tuesday.
And that was just early on Tuesday.
A plane spotted the animals on the roadway, some in what local media reported appeared to be waist-high grass. National Parks officials scrambled helicopter teams to identify the animals. The transferred animals were then headed via military helicopter to the Kruger National Park, where they will be hunted down. In the meantime, authorities are looking for the animals.
The 11-hour flight from Namibia to South Africa was an incredible aerial show of the frail condition of the rhinos. Without ropes or other support structures, the flight crews just took off, winging their way into the sky while flying at a maximum altitude of about 3,000 feet.
On Tuesday, Wildlife Outreach described that nearly 700 tons of consignment made its way down a giant conveyor belt in a mere five minutes. The high-speed process included two planes and four helicopters: the last of which landed at 3:23 p.m. local time, letting out loud whistles that echoed through the remote region.
By the time the procession of majestic white rhinos left, they were winding their way through the sky, off-path and making an improvised landing on grass. A helicopter crew captured the image.
The 18 female rhinos on board included 7 calves. South Africa is home to 99 rhinos that could become animals as they cross international borders. But only about 20 percent of these white rhinos, a species that once numbered in the millions, are left in the wild. They are considered critically endangered and are among the most vulnerable animals on the planet.
The relocation of white rhinos, in itself, was extraordinary. No other facility in the world had previously attempted a mass flight of these animals. The entire operation, the largest elephant translocation in history, and the largest rhino transport operation in history, could be credited to the unparalleled teamwork of a number of organizations — including game and lion reintroduction organizations and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums — who pooled resources to meet the challenges.
But the beleaguered rhinos still need help. In 2012, the first rhino calf was born in the Wolseley population in the Kruger National Park. A year later, 11 of the first-born rhinos died.
In 2017, a team from the Masalani Trust established a breeding program in the bush that, despite its limited numbers, is already breeding rhinos. There have been a total of 21 rhinos born, as of January 19, according to the Botswana Wildlife Conservancy.
Given their size and lengthy gestation periods, southern white rhinos are less likely to reproduce naturally. Genetic studies suggest that once these rhinos reach a certain age, they will most likely breed with each other, hence the use of artificial insemination to achieve success with this captive population.