, DVUR KRALOVE, Dec 17 – A Czech zoo will fly four of its rare Northern White rhinos — of only eight left worldwide — to Kenya this weekend in what is billed as a last-ditch attempt to ensure survival of this majestic beast that once roamed the African savannah.
The plan, designed to enhance breeding chances, has sparked outrage among some experts who feel the transfer is too risky given the different temperatures in central Europe and Kenya.
But Dana Holeckova, director of the Dvur-Kralove zoo in central Czech Republic, is adamant. "We must offer them this last chance, in their natural environment in Africa," he said.
The huge herbivores, native to central and eastern Africa, have been decimated by poachers who want their horns, highly prized in Asia for medicinal use. Most probably, the animals have been wiped out in the wild.
Only eight Northern White rhinos — whose Latin name is Ceratotherium simum cottoni, a sub-species of the White Rhino — are known to survive worldwide, all in captivity. Six are at Dvur Kralove, a vast facility specialized in African fauna, and two live at the Wild Animal Park in San Diego, California.
The Czech rhinos, however, are the only ones who have managed to reproduce, with the last birth in 2000, a female named Fatu whom the zoo dubbed its "millennium child".
The zoo, which calls the project "The Last Chance to Survive", is hoping that hormone levels of the female rhinos will get back to normal in Africa, thus improving chances for breeding.
"The task of a modern zoo is to help nature in case it needs help," said Holeckova.
Since Fatu\’s birth nine years ago, all attempts at assisted reproduction have failed.
She and another female, Najin, 21, and two males, Sudan, 37 and Suni, 30, are scheduled to leave Saturday on the long flight to Kenya\’s Ol Pejeta reserve.
Holeckova said the project, worth an estimated 300,000 dollars (206,000 euros), is financed mainly by the not-for-profit conservation organisations Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and Back To Africa.
Opponents, like zoologist Kristina Tomasova, a former European coordinator for White Rhino breeding who used to work at Dvur Kralove, say the change from winter frost to sweltering Africa is too risky.
"Three of the four rhinos were born here, and they are used to regularly changing cold and warm periods. At present, they are programmed for a cold season," she said, with the Czech Republic now gripped by severe frost.
"Even if the animals survive the journey, they will be immediately exposed to temperatures around 40 degrees C (104 degrees F). They will find it difficult to cope," Tomasova added.
The debate has drawn notice at home and abroad, with numerous Czech and foreign media teams descending upon the zoo in recent weeks. On Wednesday, some 30 people staged a protest against moving the rhinos in Hradec Kralove, a city about 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) from Dvur Kralove.
"Everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course. But we are responsible for the animals, and we want the best for them," said Pavel Moucha, chief zoologist at Dvur Kralove.
"We are well aware of the risks involved, and we are ready to do everything to minimise them," he said, saying the trucks taking the rhinos to Prague\’s airport would be equipped with a heating system.
"The estimated time needed for the journey to the wildlife reserve in Kenya is 24-26 hours," said Moucha, who will accompany the rhinos along with their breeder Jan Zdarek.
"I want the rhinos to be fine. Fatu is nine years old now, and it\’s time for her to have a baby," said Zdarek who assisted at Fatu\’s birth.
"As far as the conditions down there in Kenya are concerned, they are good, the climate is more favourable and the enclosures are larger, although we can see the risks related to the transport," he said.