Full-time security has been brought in at two wild animal parks in the fight against a 'realistic' threat from rhino poachers.
Port Lympne and Howletts Wild Animal Parks were put on high alert in March after Kent police warned a poaching plot targeting rhinos was operating in the UK.
More than 80 volunteers offered to help protect the animals at night alongside staff, following an appeal from The Aspinall Foundation, which runs the parks.
Now, Right Guard Security has been contracted to help guard the two park's 18 rare black rhinos.
Adrian Harland, animal director at Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, said staff wanted to ensure professional security was in place to tackle any problems.
He said: “We are very grateful to all of those people that volunteered and we did call on some of those services right at the beginning when it was just the keepers.”
Zawadi the black rhino at Port Lympne
d see us through that very difficult first three or four weeks when we didn’t have any cover and our risk, according to the police, was at its greatest.”
The security firm's managing director, Tony Smith, offered to help protect the animals after hearing about the appeal because of his love for animals and conservation.
His team regularly checks a number of locations across both sites, with a constant watch on the animal parks' prized possessions.
With only around 4,000 black rhinos left in the whole world, Adrian Harland said the added protection was worth the extra cost: “These animals are priceless, so we will do whatever we have to do to keep them safe.”
“My keepers were prepared to come in and spend all night driving round the park - now Tony and his team are doing that in a more professional manner. Whatever it costs we will do it.”
Despite no attempted break-ins at the park after the original threat was raised, bosses insist they have not relaxed and still fear the rhinos at the park are under threat.
He added: “We haven’t had any incidents yet, but it would be foolish of us to believe the risk has gone.
"Because wild rhino are still being poached at an alarming rate in Africa, we want to make sure the ones in Kent are well protected too.”