White rhinos flown from South Africa to Rwanda in largest single translocation

In a bid to secure the future of the near threatened species, 30 animals have been driven, flown and finally rehomed in Akagera national park

Getting stuck into the in-flight wine wasn’t an option for the 30 passengers flying overnight from South Africa to Rwanda. Crew members instead worked to keep the first-time air travellers placid and problem-free. The last thing anyone wanted was a 1.5-ton rhino on the rampage aboard a Boeing 747.

“All the rhinos were slightly sedated to keep them calm and not aggressive or trying to get out of the crates,” said Jes Gruner, of conservation organisation African Parks, who oversaw the largest single rhino translocation in history this weekend. “The rhinos weren’t sedated on the plane in the sense they were totally lying down, as that’s bad for their sternums. But they were partly drugged, so they could still stand up and keep their bodily functions normal, but enough to keep them calm and stable.”

The 30 white rhinos arrived at their new home, Akagera national park in eastern Rwanda, yesterday. It is hoped Akagera will become a new breeding stronghold to support the long-term survival of the species. Down to an estimated 18,000 animals across Africa, white rhinos are classified by the IUCN as near threatened, with numbers in decline largely due to poaching, driven by demand for their horns.

A white rhino is released into a temporary enclosure in Phinda private game reserve for quarantine ahead of the move to Rwanda.
One of the rhinos is released into a temporary enclosure in Phinda game reserve for quarantine ahead of the move to Rwanda. Photograph: Howard Cleland/African Parks

“It’s absolutely vital to get white rhinos spread across the continent, where they have safe habitats, and not necessarily only where they used to be,” Gruner said. “We need to spread the risk. If some countries can’t get hold of the illegal wildlife trade, white rhinos and rhinos in general might be pushed to the brink of extinction. We have to do everything we can to address their safety.”

Unlike critically endangered black rhinos, which previously roamed in Rwanda, white rhinos are a new introduction to the country. “We’re starting with 30, but this could grow – Akagera could be a home for easily 500 or 1,000 white rhino in the future,” Gruner said. “It could be a good genetic pool. We refer to it as an ‘animal bank’, where you can keep wildlife for the future movement of animals within the region, once we have a good, breeding, functional population in Akagera.”

The sedated rhinos are loaded into the hold for the flight from South Africa.
The sedated rhinos are loaded into the hold for the flight from South Africa. Photograph: Martin Meyer/African Parks

The rhinos – 19 females and 11 males, a mix of adults and subadults – were driven from Phinda private game reserve in South Africa’s Munyawana conservancy, flown from Durban to Kigali, then transported by road to Akagera, completing a 40-hour journey of more than 3,400km – a massive logistical undertaking that went ahead despite the new Covid variant announcements over the weekend.

“This move is the first of its kind with so many animals from wild to wild,” said Gruner. “It’s been a huge task. We chartered an aircraft. There was over 60 tons of animals, crates and feed; a logistical operation that’s taken six months to get going, but at least three years to organise. We’ve had the rhinos in a quarantine area for two months. It’s also one of the longest trips ever done. This move sets the benchmark for future white rhino conservation.”

Security was key. “We definitely didn’t promote where they were in quarantine in South Africa,” said Gruner. “They’ve been dehorned because, where they’re from, being dehorned is a deterrent to poachers. There was security for the animals along the way in South Africa, and in Rwanda, the government supported us hugely with national police escorts. We’ve had to uplift law enforcement within the national park, including monitoring. But we also want to show other countries and NGOs how this move can be done – if we can get that right, there is hope for white rhinos. So we won’t be silent about it.”

The project is a collaboration between African Parks, the Rwandan government’s Rwanda Development Board and safari company &Beyond, with funding from the Howard G Buffett Foundation. Akagera has been managed by African Parks and the Rwanda Development Board since 2010, with previous reintroductions of lions in 2015 and black rhinos in 2017 and 2019.

People celebrate as the rhinos near their destination in Akagera national park.
People celebrate as the rhinos near their destination in Akagera national park. Photograph: Gael Ruboneka Vande weghe/African Parks

“Akagera is the right spot,” said Gruner, explaining the choice of location. “There’s plenty of habitat around the continent, but not necessarily safe habitat. The government of Rwanda has shown their seriousness in conservation and protection in the last 15 to 20 years. It’s been proven – with the reintroduction of 18 black rhinos in 2017 and five more from zoos in Europe – that we can keep them safe. To date, no rhino has been poached, and the growth rate has been positive. That sets the mark for the white rhinos.”

The white rhinos are the latest step in a plan to revive the national park. “Akagera was a large part of my youth, with my family spending time camping in the wilds through the 1970s,” said Ladis Ndahiriwe, park manager of Akagera. “Back then, Akagera was very wild, with over 300 lions. There were drastic changes in Akagera in the 1990s from the pressures of refugees coming back home after the genocide against the Tutsi. It was a time of great upheaval and pain. Akagera is almost unrecognisable today, with all key species numbers increasing. Before Covid, the park was 90% self-financing through tourism. The white rhinos arriving is a point of pride for us and for Rwanda. We’ve created a safe haven that can protect this species for the future.”

Gruner said: “We look forward to the day when we have some white rhino calves in Rwanda – ‘first generation’ Rwandan white rhinos. The day they start multiplying in number, we know this has been a successful project.”

A white rhino from Phinda private game reserve in South Africa is released in Akagera national park in Rwanda, November 2021.
One of the white rhinos is released in Akagera national park in Rwanda after being flown on a Boeing 747 from South Africa. Photograph: Gael Ruboneka Vande Weghe/African Parks

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features


Graeme Green

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Decoy tactics: can fake concrete penguins help save the real thing?
South Africa’s penguins face a bleak future, with numbers plummeting and fish increasingly hard to find

Adam Welz

15, Apr, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Sold: 2,000 captive southern white rhino destined for freedom across Africa
The South African herd represents up to 15% of Africa’s remaining population. Happily, the new owners are willing to spend huge sums for translocations across the continent

Graeme Green

01, Dec, 2023 @7:00 AM

Article image
Kigali summit to outline strategy for nature conservation in Africa
First continent-wide meeting aims to set out plans to halt and reverse habitat and species loss in protected areas on land and sea

Peter Muiruri in Kigali

17, Jul, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Back from the brink: sand-swimming golden mole, feared extinct, rediscovered after 86 years
Border collie Jessie sniffs out elusive species last seen in 1937 among dunes of South Africa

Phoebe Weston

30, Nov, 2023 @1:00 PM

Article image
Leading the charge: wildlife experts plan for future of Nepal’s rhinos
One-horned species was nearly extinct before poaching was curbed. Now the climate crisis could pose a greater threat

Neelima Vallangi

24, Jan, 2022 @7:45 AM

Article image
VIP passengers: the five black rhinos flown 2,700 miles on a mission to repopulate Chad
When they last tried to relocate this critically endangered species, only two females survived. Have conservationists learned enough to end a 40-year local extinction?

Graeme Green

06, Dec, 2023 @12:21 PM

Article image
Reddit investors use GameStop proceeds to help protect gorillas
WallStreetBets members spend gains on donations for endangered animals also including elephants and turtles

Isabella Kaminski

18, Mar, 2021 @1:34 PM

Article image
Hope for Kenya’s mountain bongos as five released into sanctuary
Rewilding programme marks the ‘most significant step’ in ensuring the critically endangered species’ survival

Peter Muiruri

15, Mar, 2022 @4:00 PM

Article image
Animal CSI: using simulated crime scenes to help catch poachers – a photo essay
South Africa’s Wildlife Forensic Academy uses a stuffed rhino, lion and giraffe to equip students and rangers with the skills needed to convict wildlife criminals

23, Dec, 2022 @6:30 AM

Article image
Return of the pack: African wild dogs’ epic journey to a new home in Malawi
In an ‘absolute win’ for the endangered species, 14 dogs were transported by road and air to a ‘safe space’ in a country they have not populated in large numbers for decades

Graeme Green

30, Jul, 2021 @5:30 AM