For some endangered rhinos, a 1,000-mile road to rescue from poachers starts with a helicopter ride — hanging upside down, blindfolded and sedated.
That might sound uncomfortable, but experts say it's actually easier on the massive mammals than other means.
Plus, it's a quick way to pluck them to safety at a time when poaching for rhino horns is rampant. In South Africa alone, 341 have been killed so far this year, up from 333 for all of 2010.
The upside-down helicopter rides are provided by a project between the conservation group WWF and local government agencies in South Africa.
Veterinarians prepare a sedated black rhino for the helicopter lift.
A sedated black rhino is prepared for the 10-minute ride.
Through the project, 19 black rhinos, a species listed as critically endangered, have been moved from South Africa's Eastern Cape to a safer location some 1,000 miles away in Limopopo province.
"Previously rhinos were either transported by lorry over very difficult tracks, or airlifted in a net," Jacques Flamand, head of the WWF project, said in a statement released Friday.
"This new procedure is gentler on the darted rhino because it shortens the time it has to be kept asleep with drugs, the respiration is not as compromised as it can be in a net and it avoids the need for travel in a crate over terrible tracks," he added.
"The helicopter translocations usually take less than ten minutes, and the animals suffer no ill effect," he said, noting that the rhinos are transferred to trucks once road conditions are adequate.
"All of the veterinarians working on the translocation agreed that this was now the method of choice for the well-being of the animals," he said.
A sedated black rhino is moved by helicopter above South Africa.
WWF calls the ankle airlifts safer than other means of transport in remote areas.
With a goal if providing more habitat and safety, the project has created seven populations totalling 120 black rhinos over the last eight years in South Africa.
"Translocating rhinos always involves risk," Flamand said, "but we cannot keep all our eggs in one basket."
South Africa has fewer than 2,000 black rhinos, and fewer than 5,000 are left across the entire continent. White rhinos, also native to Africa, are better off with a population of some 20,000.
Vietnam is considered the biggest consumer of rhino horns and last month the extinction of the species there was confirmed.
"The unfounded rumor that rhino horn can cure cancer most likely sealed the fate of the last Javan rhino in Vietnam,” said A. Christy Williams, WWF’s Asian rhino expert. "This same problem is now threatening other rhino populations across Africa and South Asia."
WWF veterinarian Jacques Flamand checks a black rhino that was part of the helicopter-truck transfer in South Africa.
The last four breeding Northern White Rhinos are moved from Europe to Africa in hopes of keeping the subspecies alive. Learn about the debate over the move and the logistics of transporting such large animals.