A conservationist's rhino-in-the-sky idea

Ray Dearlove was formerly a real estate agent, but now works to save rhinos (TARP / Facebook)
Ray Dearlove was formerly a real estate agent, but now works to save rhinos (TARP / Facebook)

African rhinoceroses will soon take to the sky as part of a grand plan to help save the critically endangered species.

A South African retiree in Australia wants to airlift an "insurance population" of up to 80 black and white rhinos to the Land Down Under so they can live and breed in peace.

Ray Dearlove, founder of the Australian Rhino Project, says the ideal end result would be to return the animals to their homes but for now, life in their natural habitat is under threat from poachers.

More than 5000 rhino have been killed for their horns since 2010, with 1400 killed last year alone.

The demand for rhino horn comes from countries like China and Vietnam, where they're a status symbol many believe possess medicinal properties.

The jumbo plan was launched in December 2013, with the first six white rhinos on the move in August.

Strict biosecurity arrangements between the two countries mean the animals will spend two months in quarantine in Johannesburg in May, and then be flown to Australia in August on a non-stop freight flight.

Mr Dearlove says the animals are too big to fit through the doors of a jumbo jet.

Once they're in Australia, they'll again go into quarantine at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo for two months. From there, they'll likely travel to Monarto Zoo's safari park near Adelaide.

"There is no safe place in Africa for rhinos today," Mr Dearlove says.

"They've become extinct pretty much from the top down to South Africa."

He says there are now more rhinos killed than there are being born, given their 16-month gestation period, so extinction was a real possibility.

"I thought Australia is one of the safest places on the planet to start this breeding herd, with the eventual intention that they would be repatriated to Africa when those [poaching] issues are sorted out."

But he's realistic about how long it might take for it to be safe for the rhinos to return, saying it could take generations.

The cost to move each animal is estimated to be around $70,000.

It's not the first time conservationists in South Africa have used air power to help move rhinos -- in the past, the animals have been tranquilised and attached to a helicopter by their feet, then flown to protected areas.