A rare male black rhino has mysteriously died while being flown from Britain to Africa for a vital breeding programme that aims to repopulate the Serengeti.
Seventeen-year-old Zambesi was due to be introduced to as many as ten females at a reserve in Tanzania in a bid to boost the numbers of the critically endangered species.
An investigation into his death is now underway.
The one-ton animal, born and raised at The Aspinall Foundation at Port Lympne near Hythe, Kent, had sired three calves in the UK and it was hoped he would father more on the plains of the Serengeti.
The operation to move him cost more than £250,000 and involved 200 people on two continents.
On the flight with him were a team from the Grumeti Fund Reserve, together with one of his dedicated keepers and a vet from Africa.
But it ended it tragedy when the large male died. There are thought to be only around 5000 of his type left in the world.
The Foundation’s boss Damian Aspinall confirmed the beast died on board the plane and said: ‘I am shocked and devastated by the loss. We do not know what caused his death.
‘We will carry out every examination to see if lessons can be learned.’
The rhino’s transportation was documented on social media. One follower said they were ‘heartbroken’ by the news of his death, with another adding: ‘I hope he didn’t suffer.’
The Aspinall Foundations founder, John Aspinall, dreamt of reintroducing gorillas bred at Howletts and Port Lympne back to the wild almost as soon as he started collecting and breeding them in the early 1970s, according to the foundation’s website.
Over the years, the foundation which is now headed by John’s son Damian, have succesfully transported eight black rhino, 49 Javan langurs, nine Javan gibbon, 11 European bison and over 60 western lowland gorillas back to their natural habitat.