JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - A retired South African sales executive who emigrated to Australia 30 years ago is hatching a daring plan to airlift 80 rhinos to his adopted country in a bid to save the species from poachers.
Flying each animal on the 11,000km journey will cost about US$44,000 (S$60,300), but Mr Ray Dearlove believes the expense and risk is essential as poaching deaths have soared in recent years.
The rhinos will be relocated to a safari park in Australia, which is being kept secret for security reasons, where they will become a "seed bank" to breed future generations.
"Our grand plan is to move 80 over a four-year period. We think that will provide the nucleus of a good breeding herd," Mr Dearlove told AFP while visiting South Africa to organise for the first batch to be flown out.
The Australian Rhino Project, which the 68-year-old founded in 2013, hopes to take six rhino to their new home before the end of the year.
Funding - from private and corporate sources - is nearly in place, and the first rhinos have been selected from animals kept on private reserves in South Africa.
"We have got to get this first one right because it's a big task, it's expensive, it's complex," Mr Dearlove said.
When they are settled successfully in Australia, "then we hopefully will go up in gear", he added.
South Africa is home to around 20,000 rhinos, around 80 per cent of the worldwide population.
But they are being killed for their horns, which are in high demand in China and Vietnam where they are prized for their purported medicinal purposes.
The horn is composed mainly of keratin, the same as human nails, but it is sold in powdered form as a supposed cure for cancer among other diseases, and as an aphrodisiac.
Poachers slaughtered 1,338 rhinos across Africa last year - the highest level since the poaching crisis exploded in 2008, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The IUCN, which rates white rhinos as "near threatened" as a species, says that booming demand for horn and the involvement of international criminal syndicates has fuelled the explosion in poaching since 2007.
Dearlove still faces a major logistical battle to bring his dream to reality.
South African and Australian authorities have imposed stringent requirements on moving the animals.
The rhinos will be placed in quarantine for two months before they board a cargo plane and then go straight into quarantine in a zoo in Sydney until being taken to the safari park.
"There is a lot of work that needs to be done because there is some lack of clarity in the proposal that they have made," South African Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa told AFP.
"Who bears the cost? It's quite enormous. We still don't have answers to such things."
Internal and cross-border relocations of animals are not new in Africa.
Conservation group Rhinos Without Borders has been involved in moving at least 100 rhinos from South Africa to neighbouring Botswana in recent years.
Botswana is a favoured destination because its national parks are fiercely protected against poachers, many of whom are part of armed gangs based in Mozambique.
In South Africa, the government this month stepped back from supporting a controversial campaign to legalise the international trade in rhino horn.
Some breeders say poaching could be halted by meeting the huge demand from Asia through legally "harvesting" horn from anaesthetised live rhinos.
For Mr Dearlove, Australia may sound like an unlikely and faraway solution to save the rhino, but the climate is suitable - and the need is overwhelming.
"I'm sad that this is actually the situation which is being considered - because if the poaching would go away, there wouldn't be a need for such a plan," he said.