INTERVIEW: Wild African rhinos in the Australian bush? Ray Dearlove’s making it happen

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Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Ray Dearlove doesn’t just see an opportunity to save the rhino from certain extinction – he’s created one with The Australian Rhino Project. This ambitious plan will establish a breeding herd of white rhinos Down Under as an insurance population for the world.

It’s difficult to be optimistic when you look at the rhino poaching statistics. At the start of the 20th Century there were at least 500,000 of the giant herbivores across Asia and Africa. Today, that number sits somewhere closer to 30,000. Once, there were 11 subspecies globally; 6 of those are now extinct, and wild populations continue to fall to meet the demands of a thriving Asian market. Every 7 hours, a rhino is killed for its horn… which, being made of keratin, has about the same amount of medicinal superpowers as the average human fingernail…

Ray Dearlove’s plan is to create a secret safe haven here in Australia, breed a stable population of rhinos, and eventually repatriate them back to their African habitat once the poaching danger has passed. Of course, this process could take a few generations (at least until the demand for rhino horn is gradually overpowered by common sense). Since coming up with the idea three years ago, Ray’s been working with the Australian and South African Governments, as well as the Taronga Conservation Society and Sydney University, to make it a reality. Here, he reveals to Faunographic how this innovative project is progressing…

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Fauno: What’s your immediate goal?

Ray: The immediate goal is to get a herd of rhinos together, eventually 75 to 100 of them, and bring them to Australia where they can be free to breed, and basically just be rhinos – not in a captive environment. The idea is to increase the number of rhinos in Australia to increase the number of rhinos for the world.

Fauno: And then they’ll be repatriated once the poaching crisis passes?

Ray: That’s exactly what the plan is, but our model says those rhinos might not necessarily be repatriated back to South Africa [where they’re originally coming from], but for example, to say Malawi or Tanzania, if they’ve sorted out their poaching problems.

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Fauno: But is it hard to breed rhinos?

Ray: Surprisingly, getting them to breed isn’t the hard part – to do that, all you really need is two males (which creates competition) and probably 8 females of breeding age… and away they go!

Fauno: Your site says you’ll bring in 6 white rhinos this year…

Ray: Yes, we’re bringing in 6 rhinos because we have 6 of them; they’re on a farm/sanctuary in the north of South Africa at the moment. We originally had 12 … but 6 of them have already been poached. The thing is, so many rhinos are being poached – as many as 4000 in South Africa in the past 3.5 years. And last year alone we lost 1175. We need to get them out of there. Right now, we’re going through all the processes with the Australian agricultural authorities and we’re hoping to have them here in a couple of months.

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Fauno: Isn’t it a bit extreme to bring rhinos all the way to Australia, when we could be supporting education and anti-poaching projects in Africa?

Ray: There are more than 50 organisations in South Africa who are doing just that – I applaud that, but the success they’re having is questionable. My sense is that what we’re trying to do is an Australian venture, and therefore the money that Australians give us in fundraising should be spent in Australia, because that’s their expectation.

Fauno: So you’re not saying this is the only way to save the rhino – you’re saying it’s a supplement to other conservation efforts?

Ray: That’s exactly right – this really is just one strand in a very complicated web of things. There are many programs that are working on education both in Africa and Vietnam/China, as well as anti-poaching groups, dehorning, protection groups, etc, who are all doing amazing work to protect and educate. But really, the poaching in Africa is just the side problem – because if there was no demand, there’d be no poaching. I think it will take a generation before things really change, but if we don’t do something in the meantime, the rhinos will be gone.

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Fauno: What makes Australia a viable habitat for rhinos?

Ray: The University of Sydney conducted a 3-month feasibility study and have confirmed Australia has a suitable environment for them. The climates are very similar – we’ve got the Tropic of Capricorn here, which also runs through Africa; and the ecology is fine (with the exception of the types of acacia required by black rhinos – they’re browsers, and we won’t be bringing them in for now). White rhinos are very adaptable to grass, which is why we’re focusing on them. In Australia, we also have plenty of space for them to roam free, too.

Fauno: Will they be safe in Australia?

Ray: While I’d never say Australia’s entirely safe, I’d say it might be the safest place on the planet today for rhinos. Why? Well, firstly: because the locations we’ll use are very remote, so people can’t get to them easily to poach them. In Australia it won’t be easy for poachers to just get in a helicopter, shoot the rhino, cut its horn, and then get back in their helicopter and go – because where would they go? Australia is so vast. And the RAAF wouldn’t let them get away with it. The second thing is, there is no poaching in Australia. There’s no real corruption, and there’s no poverty – which is a real driver for the guys on the ground in South Africa. And then, I think, people will just not accept poaching here in Australia. If you kill even one rhino here the place would go berserk.

Fauno: This is such an involved process and it’s taken three years to bring everything together. What keeps you going?

Ray: It’s a simple as this: If you don’t do it, and I don’t do it, who’s going to do it? I think it’s exciting, I think that Australia’s ready for it and is uniquely positioned to do it, and I think rhinos will thrive here – which is what it’s really all about…

An intriguing idea, isn’t it? If you’d like to learn more about The Australian Rhino Project and/or show your support, click this!

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2 comments

  1. Fantastic to read! What a good idea, there’s so much space here and plenty of goodwill towards rhinos.

    It makes me gnash my teeth to hear how much poaching is STILL going on in Africa – STILL, after all these years… so I am sure there’s a long long way to go until rhino are safe there.

    Thanks for your post – a heartening read.

    Like

    1. Thanks Seana! How anyone could harm such a gentle giant is incomprehensible… but luckily rhinos have some great people on their side. Slowly, things will change (I hope).

      Like

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