Rhino rescue: Billionaire-backed initiative relocates 40 herd members to safety

African Parks, backed by influential philanthropists like Howard Buffett and the Walton Family, is spearheading a groundbreaking effort to relocate a significant portion of the world’s southern white rhino population to protected wild areas. With the acquisition of the largest privately-owned rhino herd, African Parks has donated 40 rhinos to the Munywana Conservancy, marking the beginning of a plan to move 15% of these majestic animals to safer habitats. This initiative not only safeguards a species under threat from poachers but also highlights the crucial role of well-managed conservation areas in preserving biodiversity. Supported by diverse funders, including the Oppenheimer family and Hansjoerg Wyss, African Parks’ mission embodies collaborative conservation at its finest, ensuring a brighter future for Africa’s iconic wildlife.

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By Antony Sguazzin

A billionaire-backed nonprofit has begun relocating captive-bred southern white rhinos to protected wild areas after the purchase of the world’s biggest privately-owned herd of the animals last year. 

African Parks, whose backers include the charitable foundations of Howard Buffett and the Walton Family, said it donated 40 of the 2,000 rhinos it acquired along with the distressed operation in central South Africa to the community-owned Munywana Conservancy in the southeast of the country. The translocation is the first step in a plan to relocate 15% of the global population of the pachyderms.

African Parks manages 22 conservation areas around Africa that cover 20 million hectares (49.4 million acres) across 12 countries from Angola to South Sudan and ultimately plans to restore some of the southern white rhinos to the reserves, which once formed part of their natural range. Southern white rhinos, which have been under siege from poachers in South Africa for more than a decade, are the most common of the world’s five rhinoceros species.

“The crux of the solution, and the ultimate success for rewilding these 2,000 rhino, lies in the existence of safe, well-protected and effectively managed areas across Africa, of which the Munywana Conservancy is an excellent example,” Peter Fearnhead, chief executive officer of African Parks, said in a statement on Thursday.

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African Parks bought the Platinum Rhino Project from John Hume, its octogenarian owner, last year after he tried and failed in an online auction to sell the ranch, which lies about 160 kilometers (100 miles) southwest of Johannesburg. Hume, who started breeding the animals in 2009, spent about $150 million before he said he ran out of funds to pay for their upkeep.

The number of rhinos in Africa has been decimated by a century of legal hunting and poaching. There are about 13,000 southern white rhino left with most of them living in South Africa.

African Parks, which was founded in 2000 to help address a decline in protected areas across Africa because of poor management and a lack of funding, will aim to relocate about 300 rhino a year, Fearnhead has said previously.

In addition to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Rob Walton Foundation, African Parks’ funders include foundations set up by South Africa’s billionaire Oppenheimer family and Swiss medical equipment tycoon Hansjoerg Wyss. African governments in countries where the parks are managed, the European Union and organizations such as the Netherlands National Postcode lottery also contribute. 

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