Rhinos to return to Chad in airlift after five-decade absence

ADDO ELEPHANT NATIONAL PARK, South Africa, May 3 (Reuters) - Almost 50 years after they were hunted to local extinction, black rhinos will again roam the wilds of the Central African nation of Chad, the latest chapter in a movement to bring big mammals back to former ranges on the continent.

On Thursday, six rhinos were flown to Chad’s Zakouma National Park from the South African city of Port Elizabeth, sedated and confined in specially-crafted crates to ensure they don’t cause a commotion mid-air.

The initiative comes against the backdrop of a poaching crisis that saw more than 1,000 rhinos slain in South Africa last year to meet red-hot demand for their horns in Asia, where they are prized for their alleged medicinal properties.

With 18,000 white rhinos and 2,000 of the smaller black rhino, South Africa is home to about 80 percent of the global population of the pachyderms, making it the springboard for reintroduction efforts elsewhere.

"By establishing a viable and secure population of rhino in Chad, we are contributing to the expansion of the rhino population in Africa, and the survival of a species that has faced high levels of poaching," said South African Environment Minister Edna Molewa.

No rhino has been seen in Chad since the early 1970s.

African Parks, a non-government organization which runs Chad's Zakouma and other reserves, has also reintroduced rhinos and lions from South Africa to Rwanda and is planning to relocate lions to Malawi.

"We have been using the history of conservation success in South Africa to repopulate other areas in Africa," Andrew Parker, director of conservation at African Parks, told Reuters as a hulking rhino lumbered about its holding pen below him.

The Chad-bound rhinos were in the fortified enclosures or "bomas" for three months in preparation for their long haul.

The animals have been fed lucerne, a kind of super-nutritious hay, the past few weeks. It will be initially provided to them in Chad as they adjust their diet to new trees and shrubs.

Security has been tight: the animals’ location was kept under wraps, they will be given a police escort to the airport, and in Chad they will be dehorned and fitted with transponders.

Jumbo-sized logistics and planning go into such an operation: the animals were tranquilised in Marakele National Park in northern South Africa and then brought to Addo, which has better facilities.

Cranes hoisted the crates containing the rhinos onto flat-bed trucks and they will be monitored carefully by vets on the plane for the 15-hour trip which involves two stops.

The hope is that the two bulls and four cows will establish a breeding herd which will be the most northern wild population of the species in Africa.

(Editing by Peter Graff)