Eighty South African rhinos may soon be on their way to Australia in part of an ambitious effort to establish an ‘insurance population for the world.'
The Australian Rhino Project, spearheaded by South Africa-native Ray Dearlove, plans to fly 20 rhinos per year between 2016 and 2019 to Australia, where they will make up a breeding herd to protect against possible extinction.
The number of rhinoceros is rapidly declining with figures estimating that one is poached every eight hours in South Africa, according to the organization.
The animals are tracked and killed and their horns are cut off for illegal trade, primarily to Asia, where they're sold for tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram.
The demand is high in China and Vietnam, Dearlove said, where locals believe rhino horns can have tremendous health benefits, from increased sexual performance to curing common colds and cancer.
According to a 2014 report by the United States Agency for International Development, over the last few years, the amount of contraband ivory and rhino horns illegally trafficked to Asia has skyrocketed, reaching levels not seen for at least two and a half decades.
"The numbers are just exploding, and that's despite so much money being thrown at the problem," Dearlove said, speaking of anti-poaching efforts.
Though Dearlove believes there are many good approaches to helping African rhinos, he's choosing to focus his efforts on protecting a select population and encouraging them to breed.
Australia, though closer to the regions where demand for rhino horn is high, is one of the safest places for the threatened species, the organization maintains.
"There's a number of rhino here in Australia already; there's no poaching. The federal and state governments are extremely diligent when it comes to border protection," he said.
"If one rhino got poached in this country, all hell would break lose."
However, Dearlove acknowledges that his organization is not a cure-all for the threatened population.
"This project is never going to save the rhinos. It's one strand in a very complex web."
Ultimately, Australia is serving as a secure place for the animals to live and breed - for now. If and when Africa becomes safe for rhinos again, the animals will be repatriated to their homeland - a feat that may not occur for generations, Dearlove believes.
The non-profit is awaiting various clearances before the first rhino is airlifted overseas, but the organization continues to raise money.
Some of the biggest expenses include the numerous 6,500-mile cargo flights which will transport the 2-ton animals over the next four years.
"Yes, it's expensive," Dearlove said. "But what cost do you put against saving a species? How much is it worth?"