By Oliver Milman
Conservationists in talks with Taronga Zoo in effort to bring animals from South Africa, where poaching is rampant.
Dozens of South African rhinos could be moved to Australia in a last-ditch bid to save them from rampant poaching and create an “insurance” population for the species.
Businessmen Ray Dearlove and Allan Davies, founders of the Australian Rhino Project, are in discussions with Taronga Zoo to support the increasingly desperate fight to save the species from extinction.
Last year, a record 1,004 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa, up from 668 the year before. Most of this poaching takes place in the Kruger National Park, with rhino horn now worth about $20,000 a kilogram.
Rhino horn is highly prized in south-east Asia, where some people erroneously believe that it cures various ailments. The black rhinoceros is considered critically endangered, with one subspecies, the western black rhinoceros, confirmed as extinct last year.
The growing poaching problem led to the idea of relocating rhinos to Australia, considered by South African conservationists as being an ideal habitat for the species.
Taronga Zoo operates a Sydney-based site as well as Taronga Western Plains Zoo near Dubbo, which already houses a small population of black and white rhinos.
A zoo spokesman confirmed to Guardian Australia that talks with Dearlove and Davies had progressed.
“At their request, Taronga Zoo last year contributed to the completion of a feasibility study about the concept and viability of importing rhinoceros to boost existing breeding programs in Australia to assist in securing a future for the species,” he said.
“A memorandum of understanding has been signed between the zoo and the Australian Rhino Project to further progress the requirements of such a program and involvement of the Australasian Zoo and Aquarium Association, along with government requirements.
“With at least one rhino being poached and killed every day, this has potential to boost international rhinoceros insurance breeding programs and rhino conservation across the globe.”
Last week, the Australian government cancelled $3m in funding earmarked for the survival of the Sumatran rhinoceros, which is also under severe threat with only about 100 believed to be alive in the wild.
Humane Society International said the government should do more to help rhino conservation efforts by cracking down on the export and import of rhino horn.
“HSI believes that this would be a strong statement by Australia to the world of its commitment to conserve rhino populations, before it is too late,” said Alexia Wellbelove, senior program manager at HSI.
“With 86 rhinos already reported killed by poachers in the first month of this year, it is clear that the demand for rhino horn has increased uncontrollably. In fact, it is predicted that by 2016-18 rhino deaths will outweigh births, likely resulting in their extinction. It is clear that we need to act now to help save rhinos.”