At times, wildlife conservationists do things that might look a bit strange or even questionable to the rest of us. And seeing a rhino tied by its legs and suspended from a helicopter—even though it’s to move the animal away from poachers—is one example that is uncomfortable for most of us to watch.
Many rhino relocations are carried out via trucks, but some remote regions are just too inaccessible by roads. So, 10 years ago, wildlife professionals occasionally began using helicopters to move rhinos to and from such terrains. During these aerial rides, rhinos are either placed on their sides on a stretcher or hung upside down by the legs.
Of the two methods of transport, conservationists tend to prefer the upside-down airlift because it’s easier, faster and less expensive than the stretcher option. Unfortunately, we didn’t really know how being flipped and suspended like that affects the rhinos.
Now, though, we have the answer.
Game guards and rhino rangers
Africa is home to two rhino species. White rhinos number more than 20,000, while it’s thought that only 5,000 black rhinos remain in the wild. While white rhinos can also be transported upside down, they are nearly twice as heavy as black rhinos, so they are airlifted less often.
Critically endangered black rhinos live in deserts, savannas and shrublands across Africa, with the largest populations in Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. In the 1960s, more than 100,000 black rhinos lived in the wild, but 30 years of rampant poaching for their horns—which are highly prized as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicines and for jewelry and ornamental carvings—wiped out 98 percent of the animals. By the mid-1990s, just 2,354 black rhinos remained.
Since then, aggressive conservation efforts have more than doubled black rhino numbers. But while the population is growing, the black rhino isn’t completely out of the woods yet.
Rhinos are a “density-dependent species,” which means that if there are too many in one area, their numbers will decline unless some are moved elsewhere. Relocating rhinos also helps to ensure a diverse gene pool. In some cases, rhinos are rescued from poaching hot spots and shifted to areas where they can be monitored and protected.
In Namibia, home to a nearly a third of Africa’s black rhinos, government wildlife conservancy programs move rhinos to farms and reserves in remote communities. Residents are then trained as game guards and rhino rangers, which helps boost local economies and keep the animals safe. In 2020, rhino poaching in Namibia was down 40 percent from 2019.
Upside down and side lying
While the helicopter technique of moving rhinos from place to place is at least a decade old, no one had scientifically documented its clinical effects on the animals during transportation or once they woke up. Seeking such data, the Namibian government asked a research team at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine to examine the practice. The results, recently published in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, surprised even the scientists.
First, starting in 2015, the Cornell team traveled to Waterberg Plateau National Park in Namibia and conducted a field study of 12 anesthetized black rhinos—each weighing between 1,770 and 2,720 pounds—while in two different positions: hanging by their feet from a crane to mimic the effects of air transport or lying on their sides as they would during conveyance on a sledge.
Whether on its side or hanging upside down, a rhino that is airlifted requires two helicopters: a small one to dart the animal with a sedative and a larger one to carry the rhino. Using a stretcher adds additional weight, and the process takes longer; it might take a team of six people up to 30 minutes to position and secure the rhino on the platform. By contrast, attaching ropes to the animal’s legs and feet can take just minutes, reducing expenses and cutting the time the rhino spends under sedation.
The anesthesia tranquilizers are 1,000 times stronger than morphine and pose one of the biggest risks to rhinos, whether they’re being moved by air or road. The potent drugs have side effects that include higher metabolism, reduced oxygen in the blood and respiratory depression. The researchers predicted that hanging rhinos upside down would exacerbate the dangerous effects of these opioids, since horses in this position suffer from impaired breathing, likely due to their heavy abdominal organs pushing against their lungs and chest cavities.
The researchers then measured the biomarkers of the 12 rhinos for respiration and ventilation. They found that the rhinos had higher blood oxygen levels when upside down. That position, said the researchers, allows the spine to stretch, which helps to open the airways. Additionally, the team found that when lying on their sides, rhinos have larger “dead spaces”—the amount of air in each breath that does not contribute oxygen to the body.
Although the difference between the two postures was small, because of the strong anesthesia, even a minor improvement makes a marked difference in the rhinos’ welfare. So, while it looks like an uncomfortable experience, a rhino flying upside down is the better option for its health.
Seeing sights and resting easy
The researchers acknowledged Namibia for its foresight in recognizing that airlifting rhinos will only increase in the future as more rhinos are moved to rugged and out-of-the-way areas, such as Namibia’s northern Kunene Region. Therefore, it is important to better understand how transport affects the animals’ health and safety. They hope to conduct research on longer airborne relocations—currently, most airlifts involve journeys of around 30 miles, in trips lasting 20 to 30 minutes—and investigate the long-term impacts of flights on brain activity and blood flow.
In 2015, one of the biggest rhino relocation projects up to that time moved 100 rhinos from South Africa to Botswana, using a mix of road and helicopter transport. After a 24-hour operation, the rhinos were unloaded at their new home in the Okavango Delta.
It must have been something to see and—from what we now know—satisfying and comfortable to watch.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,