White rhinos flying to Zimbabwe from South Africa

Image copyright Michel Barsalou Image caption Nature biologist Michel Barsalou was at the controls for the cull

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A total of 31 white rhinos were put on a plane en route to a nearby zoo as part of one of the largest rhino conservation efforts ever undertaken.

The Zimbabwean government hopes to put the animals into facilities of Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), which provides a home for 51 white rhinos from across the globe.

And Peter Lehmann, a senior government official, said it was a “huge risk” to translocate the animals and that some species were “too tired” to be moved.

He told BBC World Service that it was important to “ensure these animals receive good care” at the sanctuary.

He said the animals were receiving pampering and were due to be returned there in April.

He also said a task force was looking into how to deal with the rhinos when the group reach Zimbabwabwe from South Africa.

Dozens of rhinos were put on display at the stadium, close to where the team took off, to allow for a moment of public reflection.

White rhinos were once widespread in Zimbabwe, but are now extinct in the wild, having been hunted for their horns and horns of other big-horned animals being traded illegally.

Image copyright Jill Altman Image caption They were welcomed with drums and dancing

The animals come from three zoos – in the South African city of Durban, in the Malawian capital Lilongwe and in Thailand.

There are only about 6,000 left in the wild, and the newly relocated animals will be housed at EWT’s zoo outside Harare.

But conservationists have warned about both the time and the care needed.

Transporting the animals presents “the biggest risk we’ve ever taken,” says Alan Sayce, head of conservation at the Zoological Society of London.

As these are the animals’ new home, putting them on a plane without sufficient caging “dilutes their vulnerability” to getting hit by a vehicle.

Image copyright IRM Publishers Image caption The cull was part of the biggest translocation of white rhinos in history

Another conservation official, and veteran employee at Endangered Wildlife Trust, also warned that taking on the animals “is a big jump for staff”.

Its website says the rhinos will need continual support and care for at least 20 years, and have been treated to “hundreds of tons of fresh water”, including from water bottles, and extra feed for each day, as well as round-the-clock care at the sanctuary.

AFRO/IRM/BBC

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