Changing Planet

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

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: Follow Paul on Twitter or Instagram
  • Anne PAlyok

    I am glad to see that every effort is being made to protect these beautiful creatures. I was wondering if that isn’t hard on their poor ankles. That seems like a lot of weight to only be held by their ankles. Couldn’t they add a support sling underneath, just to ensure their ankles are not damaged? I don;t know anything about how this is all done and am assuming all that was already addressed.. Again though wanted to say very admirable for those involved in the relocation, keep up the good work.

  • Martine Erceg

    I love the dedication to help protect the rhinos.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Aleksandar Jovanic

    Wonderful action. Greetings and thanks to the people who participate.

  • John Evans

    Just wondering why go to all the trouble and possible stress on the ankles of the rhino when you could corral them into a cage and then airlift the cage?

  • roho

    We must save these animals because the elite will actually pay as much as $25,000.00 to kill one………..Ha-Ha!…….There are NO animal activists because there is far too much money in the industry of SAFARI.

  • Gina Boxley

    I still feel that a net would support the Rhino better and not put so much pressure on their ankles. Just as well as …..around their huge bodies to take some of the weight off the legs. Amazing work and photos guys.

  • Dawn Solomon

    Awesome to see what’s being done to save our precious Rhino. It is so sad knowing these poor animals have to go through all this because of human kind. Greed has no limits. I’m also worried about the strain on their ankles……. Maybe some sort of sling to support their bodies to take off some of the weight? Thanks guys for all your efforts to save our Rhino. God Bless and keep you all safe.

  • Jack Haynes

    you need to put a sling under the rhino.

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    I also would like to see them lifted in a different manner. It is not natural for a Rhino to be upside down and hanging from Their ankles. Especially since they are not awake. What prevents them from limb damage and possible breathing problems. Here in the United States have had many cattle and horses flown away and they always have a sling that supports their entire body. That way there are no breathing problems and they are still right side up. I mean you never see a rhino laying on it’s back in the wild! It just seems like it would be much easier on the animal.

    • Paul Steyn

      Hi Lapeer. This method is the most stress-free way of moving the animals and has been successfully practiced for a few years now in South Africa.

  • Naomi Warner

    LOVE that they are being airlifted out. But there’s too much stress on their ankles—perhaps a sling that would take the brunt of the stress?

  • bodhisatwa chaudhuri

    Wouldn’t it be better to have a sling around the Rhino’s body? These animals are heavy and isn’t it painful if you transport them hanging upside down in the air with the entire weight pulling on the ankles?

  • Kim Patrick Abedejos

    This good works should be the one that is supported by the governments around the world, everyone could benefit the unextinction of this species… Be proud.. Keep up the good work guys!

  • Neil Cleere

    I think the cage is a great idea but the extra weight probably means they would have to use an even more expensive and powerful helicopter to provide the lift. ….. or maybe they can’t get a rhino into a cage easily!

  • Federica

    Thak you, what you are doing is great …
    But, since they are so heavy, isn’t the way they are hanging like that dangerous for their limbs and especially for their “shoulders” and “hips” joints ?

  • Bianca

    Do any of you people realise that the weight is not too much to be supported by the rhinos ankles because, uh, they support their weight on their ankles every single day?

  • Janet Acosta

    I hope the rhino still okay, without any broken bones.

  • Joe

    I LOVE how so many people commenting on here are smarter than the wildlife biologists who are doing this!

  • Neil Cleere

    To Bianca. Compressive strength and tensile strength are two totally different things and not necessarily related. This is particularly true of joints as they will pull out of sockets much more difficult to cause injury by pushing the joint together, particularly if nature has designed it to be that way. However, I have no doubt the even in tension the weight of a Rhino can easily be supported by its leg joints.

  • concerned.

    why are these animals not in weight bearing slings to brace them from the gravity pull??? Please add this device to the process..

  • ken

    question: Have the heard of a thing called a net? i would think it would be more comfortable and not add much more weight.

  • Sibusiso Gwele

    I, as well think that it would be much better if there was something putted underneath supporting the body weight, this thing looks heavy to be supported by ankles alone!!!

  • Nirmala

    They would have used net instead.. I don’t know how it bared all the body weight on ankles..

  • Lea Stuart

    I agree with all the comments, including – well the biologists should know what they’re doing. But do they? If they believe their weight can be held by their ankles in the manner the rhino has, then … review it.

  • Emily Aarsvold

    Yeah, I’m sure no body over there considered using a sling. Unless they start to see problems/injuries from this type of transportation, I see no reason why everyone is telling them that they need to change it.

  • Candice Louzado

    Instead of relocating the rhinos…why not catch the poachers…strap them by their ankles..airlift & relocate them!
    Put them all on a lonely island!

  • J

    when rhinos fly!!!

  • Peter Gonzalez

    Someone above mentioned that the ankle is strong enough to carry them so why not to tie it. That’s compression, and this is tension. Their joints are not designed to bear tensile force.

  • Eulae

    This is wonderful! Though, I’m no expert but I still think that there should be some support behind the body? 🙂

    Thank you for doing this for the animals who deserve the planet more than humans..

  • Manoj Navale

    Protecting rhino is really a excellent move but the way we are doing is not correct. I think, Lifting these heavy animals with ankles is not good idea.

  • Hugh Gatland

    These are very professional, caring people transporting the rhino. I’m sure they know exactly what they are doing.
    Well done to them.

  • Dave Prentice

    Great work guys & especially lovely photography by Em Gatland. About the lack of support for the rhino’s body/ankles…. These guys know their stuff, I’m sure!

  • Sabih

    I’d love to see pictures of poachers tranquilized and airlifted ‘roughly’ 500 – 1000 meters off the ground by their ankles.

  • Sindhu Arun

    Appreciate the dedication and effort in safeguarding and assuring a better habitat and future for wild. As said above I would support the comments that the airlift should be enhanced with a net or some kind of support to the animal. When we are hung by ankle upside down the feeling should be the same for these speechless animals too, not sure once they gain consciousness they feel it or they are all ok . Having said I really admire all of you involved in this effort, not everyone can do this. Great work 🙂

  • Paul Steyn

    Thanks for the comments and concern about potential strain to the animal. Please see the latest update above.

  • Ricky Dewet

    Awesome but yes a kind of netting, fisherrnet can support that HEAVYWEIGHT! Lovely idea! Keep up the goodwork please! Beautiful old creatures! GODMADE!

  • Arina

    interesting, but looks not very humanely though(

  • sajal das

    Good work by the activists. An additional sling support will reduce stress on the legs.

    On the contrary, the poachers should be deported likewise to lonely islands in 1 to 1 basis sans any means of communication. They destroy these beautiful creatures.

  • Glorie

    Felicitaciones, gracias a Dios q hay personas tan maravillosas como Ud(s) q estan preservando la fauna salvaje. Estoy de acuerdo con los comentarios anteriore, los tobillos de estos hermosos animales se pueden afectar por el peso dr su cuerpo,sugiero un plataforma donde suban en posicion
    normal asegurados con cinturones de mucha resistencias..

  • Patricia Taber

    What fantastic work these compasionate professionals are doing. I pray these great creatures are safe forever in their new location.


    This approach is most important. Poachers, however, must be killed to the very last. And if those awful people in China and Vietnam could only see the light.

  • Diane Pohl

    I just finished my nature studies this year. what i learnt from professionals is that this is the best way ive even learnt about the history of project Rhino. We here in South Know what we are doing. Our Rhinos are our Pride.

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