Hanging Rhinos Upside Down from Helicopters is the Best Way to Save Them, Study Finds

  • It sounds like an extreme sport, but this is actually serious conservation work.

Picture yourself on a safari in the African savannah. You’re spending your day marveling at the wonders of the unique environments and its animals, from antelopes to giraffes.

Suddenly, you hear a weird noise and you look up. A helicopter is flying through the air, with a full-grown black rhinoceros hanging upside down by its legs beneath it.

You’d probably wonder what in the world is going on. While the sight might seem ridiculous or cruel, the bizarre stunt is actually for the rhino’s own good.

The rhino hanging from the helicopter is not in danger – quite the opposite. This is part of the latest effort to protect Namibia’s endangered real-life unicorns.

The animals live under constant threat from unscrupulous poachers. The criminals hunt rhinos for their horns, which are sold on the black market as supposed traditional medicine.

To try and protect the animals, conservationists often have to move the rhinos to more remote areas, which aren’t as accessible to poachers. But this where they have run into some issues.

First of all, an adult rhino weighs about 4,000-5,000 pounds, depending on the particular species. You can imagine that the temperamental, stubborn giants aren’t willing to migrate over vast distances on their own.

So let’s say that you manage to drug the rhino and it passes out. Then what?

You could load it onto a truck, but the whole point of your rhino relocation exercise is to move the animal to a place where trucks can’t get to. If you can drive a rhino-laden truck there, what’s stopping the poachers from doing the same?

“I feel like I was strung upside down from a helicopter. I’m never doing drugs again.”

How to Move a Giant

That’s where the helicopters come in. Airlifting the rhinos lets conservationists relocate them to areas where land-based vehicles have no business going to.

This rhino transportation method is actually nothing new. It has been used for more than 10 years, according to Cornell University.

The process of moving the animal begins by knocking it out with rhino-grade tranquilizing opioids. But once you have the rhino out cold, you have to decide how you’re going to move it.

Naturally, the beast is much too big to load inside anything but maybe a massive military transport chopper. So, the best option is to lift the rhino into air by attaching it to the outside of the helicopter.

When it comes to it, there are basically two methods available. In the first one, conservationists lay the rhino flat on its side on a huge stretcher, which the helicopter then picks up.

The second one is the “just strap the rhino’s legs to the chopper and let it hang upside down” method.

Doing Drugs

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, people had some concerns about the second method. It’s easy to see why – we doubt anyone would like hanging like that from a helicopter for extended periods.

Dr. Robin Radcliffe, senior lecturer in wildlife and conservation medicine at Cornell University, said that the hard drugs used to tranquilize the rhino could make the issue even worse.

“These drugs are potent opioids – a thousand times more potent than morphine – with side effects that include respiratory depression, reduced oxygen in the blood and higher metabolism,” Radcliffe explained.

Scientists also reasonably assumed that hanging upside down could seriously harm the rhinos. Horses who have gone through a similar ordeal usually can’t breathe too well because their internal organs start crushing their lungs.

A rhino is much heavier than a horse, so you could expect the same thing to happen to them. Right?

Strange but Effective

Well, Radcliffe asked himself that question. And like a true scientist, he set out to find some answers.

The results of his research – published in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases – were surprising to say the least. It turns out that the upside down method is actually the best way to transport rhinos.

This flew in the face of everyone’s previous expectations, said Radcliffe. According to his study, rhinos can breathe better when they’re not laying down on a stretcher.

“Hanging rhinos upside down actually improved ventilation (albeit to a small degree) over rhinos lying on their sides,” Radcliffe said.

“While this was unexpected, and the margins small, any incremental improvement in physiology helps to enhance safety of black rhinoceros during capture and anesthesia,” he added.

That is great news for anyone working to save the rhinos. Not only do they now know the optimal way to hang a rhino from a helicopter, they can also save the cost of the stretcher.

However, Radcliffe says that more research is needed to fully figure out what’s best for the beasts. During his study, Radcliffe only observed the stung-up rhinos for a short while.

Meanwhile, an actual real-life helicopter ride can last up to 30 minutes. There could be some complications that simply didn’t come up during Radcliffe’s shorter study.

“Our next step with this research is to extend the time that subject rhinos are suspended upside down to mimic the helicopter-assisted aerial transport of rhinos in the real world,” said Radcliffe.

“Now that we know that it’s safe to hang rhinos upside down for short periods of time, we’d like to make sure that longer durations are safe as well,” he concluded.