Flight of the Rhino: The Remarkable New Way to Relocate African Wildlife

It’s a tricky, expensive and often very dangerous affair to safely relocate a rhino. But conservationists in South Africa have come up with a slightly awkward and highly effective way of moving the animals in order to protect them from poaching threats. 

Photographer Emma Gatland joined the team from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife for a recent rhino capture and relocation project in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa.

“There aren’t many people who get to witness a rhino lift,” she says. “It’s a new procedure, which is gentle on the rhino as it shortens the time the animal is kept drugged. The rhinos are airlifted using an old Vietnam Huey, which in itself is an adventure. They are lifted roughly 500 – 1000 meters into the air suspended by their ankles.”

An amazing way to relocate a rhino – getting lifted into the air by it’s feet. Photo by Emma Gatland

Megan Lategan from Wildlife Act describes the operation in more detail.

“Game Capture and relocation is done for the benefit of the species and to ensure the strength of future bloodlines. It is a complex procedure and is only done when absolutely necessary. Thankfully the techniques used for rhino capture and relocation have significantly improved in recent years, gone are the days of large drug doses and corralling a dazed animal into a convenient location.

As strange as it may seem airlifts are the best way to move these massive creatures, it allows them to be captured from any location; the rhino spends less time under anaesthetic and ultimately endures less stress from the procedure. The significant improvement in this area has led to a marked increase in the success of relocating white rhino.”

Flying rhino
The rhino under tranquilliser drugs. Photo by Emma Gatland
Photo by Emma Gatland
Flying rhinos
The rhino about to get air-lifted. Photo by Emma Gatland
Photo by Emma Gatland
Photo by Emma Gatland
UPDATE:  09 May 2014
Here’s more information on the procedure supplied by Wildlife Act.
This technique was first used on other species such as large antelope and buffalo, and proved to to be a very successful way to transport larger animals, not only by air but from the ground into a transport crate using a crane device. 
Since then it has been trialled and tested extensively with rhino, which included very thorough testing during  the the entire process, such as monitoring blood pressure, oxygen levels, heart rate, and of course strain placed on limbs and joints. All four legs (and with white rhino the head) are used during the lift, this helps spread the weight evenly. From all the tests no negative impact, strains or injury has been recorded. 
The result is an incredibly safe and effective technique, far better (in most situations) than the traditional methods, which is not only time consuming – puts extra stress on the animal, but can also increase the risk of injury.


Paul Steyn is a widely-published travel journalist from South Africa. Having guided throughout Africa for some years, he went on to edit a prominent travel magazine, and now writes about and photographs unique experiences around the world. Follow him on twitter

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Paul Steyn is a widely-published multi-media content producer from South Africa, and regular contributor to National Geographic News and blogs. Having guided throughout Africa for some years, he went on to edit a prominent travel and wildlife magazine, and now focuses on nature storytelling in all its forms. In 2013, he joined a team of researchers and Bayei on a 250km transect of the Okavango Delta on traditional mokoros. In 2016, he accompanied the Great Elephant Census team in Tanzania and broke the groundbreaking results on National Geographic News . Contact: paul@paulsteyn.com Follow Paul on Twitter or Instagram