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The race to save the rare black rhino living on borrowed time.. EXCLUSIVE.

Byline: MIKE SWAIN

IT'S one of nature's most impressive sights, as two rhinos charge hell for leather across a grassy African plain.

There's not much that can spook these magnificent beasts - but, take it from me, the sudden appearance of a helicopter will do it.

Sitting next to me in the copter, vet Dr Isaac Lekolool calmly raises his tranquilliser gun and fires a pink dart into the rump of the leading rhino, a three-year-old female, as they race across their fenced-off sanctuary.

She begins to slow and stumble as her companion lumbers on. As she falls, we land close by - the first stage in transporting her to the wild where she belongs.

Her name is Irene and she is about to endure a 370-mile truck journey which wildlife experts hope will be the road to recovery for the critically endangered Kenyan black rhino.

Over two decades, poachers annihilated the black rhino population, killing them and hacking out their horns, which by weight are more valuable than gold. Their numbers shrank by 96% from 20,000 to just 300 animals by the 1990s.

As a desperate last resort, those last remaining rhinos were put in sanctuaries such as at Lake Nakuru National Park in the Great Rift Valley, where Irene was born.

It's proved to be a success, more than doubling their numbers to 635.

So the big beasts, like Irene, are being taken from their protected zones to roam free.

As we reported yesterday, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of conservation charity the World Wildlife Fund - launched after a shock issue of this newspaper half a century ago warned much of the planet's wildlife was "doomed".

And the very existence of Irene is living proof all the hard work, dedication and supporter donations over those years have been worthwhile.

Irene's new home is in Tsavo West National Park - which, combined with the eastern part, is a wildlife stronghold larger than Wales.

Tsavo once boasted 8,000 rhinos but so great was the indiscrimate slaughter by poachers that there were only three remaining by 1990.

Now Irene is part of a new generation of hope being imported from sanctuaries like Nakuru.

It is a big risk. Irene has only just left her mother's side.

She faces many dangers, from elephants she has never encountered before, to fights with other rhinos, and those deadly poachers. But she won't be alone. We arrive at Nakuru at dawn for a military-style briefing from the Kenyan Wildlife Service, which is supported by the WWF.

We also say prayers for our safety.

As the red sun rises, silhouetting the black African trees, we are told to prepare for "an adrenalin-full day".

Irene is one of four rhinos being moved today. The others are Benja, a male aged four, and females Eliza, six, and Cherotich, three.

Team Rhino have just 20 minutes to carry out a barrage of tests and get Irene crated. The operation goes like clockwork. Dung, hair, tissue and blood samples are taken and her temperature monitored. If she begins to heat up, water is poured over her.

Unconscious - but still quivering and kicking - she's pushed on to her belly, and her ears are notched with her own distinctive pattern. Vets check her breathing, she is given vaccines - plus a radio transponder is injected and her horn is microchipped.

Her horn is also blunted, so she doesn't injure other rhinos in fights or herself in the crate, and she is finally woken up.

As soon as Irene moves, she is pulled into the crate by a rope attached to a tractor and the door slammed shut while she kicks in protest inside.

It takes 12 hours along the main Mombassa highway to reach Tsavo West, south of Nairobi. Just after midnight, we are 40 miles inside the boundary at the release site.

Rhinos feed and move around at night so that is the best time to release them.

But Irene and Benja square up to each other ferociously when they back out of their crates.

It's a tense hour before the two beasts move cautiously into the undergrowth in their new home. The next day, we're up early to find the young rhinos with chief warden Edward Karanje. It is his job to ensure they survive.

He gazes at the valley below where 8,000 rhinos once roamed. His enemy are poachers walking in from Somalia.

He is reluctant to talk about his defences - but he does admit quietly to me his men have received training from the Israeli secret services.

A new wave of poachers is being financed by international gangs because the Vietnamese wrongly believe that rhino horn can cure cancer.

Karanje's team has recently been trained in using tracker dogs to follow the poachers through the bush. "We have our men everywhere. We are always trying to keep one step ahead," he says. Black rhinos are notoriously difficult for conservationists. They are very shy and territorial and need about 7sq km of land each. They are browsers, meaning they feed off bushes.

Females can carry and rear only one calf at a time and pregnancy lasts 17 months. Calves stay suckling for three years so each rhino breeds around once every four to five years.

If the land is too dry or there's not enough food or not enough space, fights break out and breeding falls off.

We tune into Irene's transmitter signal and creep silently into the bushes with Warden Karanje. We find her just a few hundred yards from the release site, hiding nervously in the bushes.

Kenya hopes to have 700 rhinos by the end of this year and 2,500 by 2035.

Benson Okita Ouma, Kenyan Wildlife Service's senior scientist in charge of the project, says: "We are now bringing rhinos back to where they belong, out of the fenced areas. That is the dream for every conservationist.

"Without protection and the dedication of so many people, the rhino would have gone by now."

Noah Sitati, species manager for WWF in Kenya, added: "To save the rhino completely, they must be in the wild. I think we can save the black rhino - but there's a long way to go."

TEAM RHINO

A WORKFORCE of 44 was needed to transport four creatures to the wild, made up of two rhino spotters, four vets, eight capturerangers to manhandle the beasts, three lab technicians, two pilots, 15 rangers on the ground, two scientists, one team leader, five drivers for three lorries and two trucks, one mechanic and one helicopter mechanic.

OUR DAY

5.30am team briefing and prayers.

6.15am First rhino darted.

7.15am First rhino in its crate on lorry.

11am Fourth and final rhino darted.

12.15pm All rhinos ready to depart.

12.20am Arrive at release site.

2.30 am Last of the four rhinos moves away.

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CAPTION(S):

1 Rhino Irene is darted from the air in sanctuary 2 Sleeping animal is microchipped 3 A team blindfolds the beast ready for the journey 4 A rhino is dragged into crate for transportation 5 Everyone out the way as Irene and Benja square up HUNTED Poachers hounded the black rhino to the brink of extinction
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 11, 2011
Words:1218
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