Are rhinos worth the effort—an emphatic “Yes.”

By February 2, 2022Editorial

Caption: Black Rhino, East Africa. © Martha van Tonder/Shutterstock

Can we really prevent the extinction of the world’s rhinos, the five species that survive on the planet today? Honestly, I don’t know. I know we can—we’ve done it so far— but the big question is, do we have the resolve to continue?

Falling into a pit of depression about the state of the natural world is easy and even easier regarding rhinos, given the challenges they face. After all, we’re bombarded daily with dire news about falling wildlife populations, the destruction of habitat, an out-of-control illegal wildlife trade (and an unsustainable legal one to boot), and of course, the life-shattering advance of a Sixth Mass Extinction obliterating species as it approaches, many before we’ve even known they’re there.

The rhino family emerged onto the evolutionary stage not long, in geological terms, after the demise of dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. They reached their zenith in Miocene times when at least 100 species were distributed across Africa, Eurasia, and North and Central America. Only nine species survived into the Late Pleistocene, when further extinctions occurred, including the Siberian unicorn and the Woolly Rhino. Evolutionary biologists tell us that extinction is inevitable, a consequence of life. Of all species that have existed on Earth, 99.9 percent are now extinct, many of them disappearing in five previous cataclysmic extinction events in our planet’s 4.5-billion-year journey through the cosmos.

So, given all of this, where does it leave wildlife conservation? Is it not pointless; does it not make a mockery of the time, effort, and money spent on “saving” species such as rhinos? After all, the fossil record seems to show that rhinos are in the twilight of their allotted time on Earth. Should they not, then, just be allowed to shuffle off this mortal coil?

No, is the short answer. And not just for altruistic, moral reasons, but purely selfish ones from a human perspective. The mass extinction we currently face is not a natural event. It is our fault. Our crazy resource-devouring actions are well-beyond Earth’s ability to replenish itself. We see this all too clearly in our increasingly unstable climate, the destruction of ecosystems, and hence, the pressure on individual species. Scientists are emphatic about the interwoven co-dependency of climate and biodiversity regarding the health or otherwise of the planet. The unnecessary and unnatural loss of any species diminishes the integrity of the whole, including us humans. So, in a very real sense, by saving rhinos, in the long run, we’re also saving ourselves.

Nevertheless, it’s a good question to ask. Are our efforts helping rhinos, is all that time, money, and effort being well spent? Probably not in all instances, but when you take stock of rhino conservation worldwide, I feel confident that most of it is.

The Sumatran rhino once ranged across Southeast Asia, from the Himalayas in Bhutan and India, to southern China and down the Malay Peninsula. In the past three decades, 80 percent of the population has been lost, and today, fewer than 80 remain in the wild, in small, scattered populations on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Of these, only 30 are thought to be adults. Originally, poaching decimated the species, but more recently, the loss of the rhino’s forest habitat threatens their future, mainly due to expanding palm oil and paper pulp plantations. However, making matters extremely critical is the failure of these fragmented groups to breed. This situation, known as an allee effect, results from a decline in individual reproductive fitness at low populations sizes or density, leading to critical population thresholds below which populations crash towards extinction.

To combat this, conservationists in Indonesia have embarked on the Sumatran Rhino Rescue project (SRR), an ambitious rescue and captive breeding program to boost the birth rate. But this, too, is fraught with complications. First of all, finding, identifying, and capturing individual rhinos in a dense tropical forest environment is no easy task, especially when they are so elusive there are so few of them. The solution, scientists have found, is to follow forest trails and collect dung from which microsatellite sequences can be identified. These repetitive DNA sequences, which evolve very quickly and are highly variable within species, can be used as genetic markers to help distinguish between individual animals.

SRR is a coalition of international and Indonesian NGOs working hand-in-hand with local partners and leaders in government. “Our shared goal of establishing a conservation breeding program for the species by bringing together animals unable to breed in the wild will lead to what I hope to see in my lifetime: a next generation of Sumatran rhinos,” says Barney Long, Senior Director, Conservation Strategies at Re:wild.

SRR embraces three key activities. Building rhino sanctuaries on Sumatra and Borneo, search and rescue operations to move isolated rhinos to breeding facilities where population growth can be aided through world-class veterinary and husbandry care. “Decades of research, training, and scientific advancements mean this alliance not only offers the best chance of survival for the Sumatran rhino, it is the only chance,” said Rizal Malik, CEO of WWF-Indonesia.

The Javan Rhino story is similar. Once, it was the most widespread of Asian species, ranging from the islands of Javan and Sumatra, throughout Southeast Asia, and into India and China. But it too has suffered major deprivations, and today, like its Sumatran cousin, fewer than 80 remain in the wild. Its horn has been traded for more than 2,000 years in China, and it was relentlessly targeted by European hunters after colonial expansion into its range—as much a contributor to its demise as the more recent decimation due to poaching. Today, only one population survives in the wild—in the Ujong Kulon National Park at the far western tip of the Indonesian island of Java. As with the Sumatran Rhino, an allee effect may occur “due to the solitary behaviour of Rhino within large territory, imbalance of age structure and gender and difficulty of finding mates.” Adding to the species vulnerability is its proximity to the highly active Anak Krakatoa. Here in December 2018, during a relatively minor eruption, one of the volcano’s flanks collapsed, causing a tsunami that killed 437 people and left tens of thousands injured and displaced. Fortunately, this tragedy was not compounded by the loss of rhinos.

Notwithstanding the Javan Rhino’s perilous state, without the efforts of conservation agencies and the Indonesian Government, the rhinos would not have survived to the present. Now, the quest is to develop a second site and remove the Arenga palm tree, which has outcompeted the rhino’s major food plants in a large part of Ujong Kulon. Restoration of the natural vegetation would, alone, provide nourishment for the rhinos for the next five years or so.

Credit for the stalwart protection of the Javan Rhino—there hasn’t been a poaching incident in the park for some 20 years—goes to the Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) formed in 1995. Slowly but surely, the commitment of RPUs is paying off. According to Save the Rhino, as well as the zero-poaching success that continued last year, there have been direct Javan rhino sightings, a camera trap recording of a male Javan rhino entering the Study and Conservation Area for the first time in over a year, as well as 79 footprints spotted, and 15 wallows identified. And the best news of all: there has been at least one newborn rhino calf recorded every year since 2012. Hope indeed.

News on the Indian Rhino front is also encouraging. In 2021, only one rhino poaching case was reported from the species’ main stronghold, Kaziranga National Park in Assam State. Between 2000 and 2015, Assam lost 153 rhinos, but poaching instances have steadily decreased since then. Much of the credit for this goes to the state’s Anti-Poaching Task Force (APTF).

In the early 1900s, only about 200 Indian Rhinos remained, this of a species that once ranged across the great valley regions of northeastern Pakistan, northern India, almost all of Bangladesh, and into the southern plains of Nepal. The cause: again, the scourge of hunting in colonial times, the ever-growing pressures of population growth, and the land-use changes accompanying it. Notwithstanding, India took action, and in 1910, all rhino hunting in India was prohibited. Then, in 1957 the country’s first conservation laws protecting rhinos and their habitat were enacted, and by the early1990s, the population had risen to almost 1,900 individuals.

In 2007, the Assam Forest Department, WWF India, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, and the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) combined their experience and expertise to found the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV2020). The aim of this ambitious project was for the Indian Rhino population of Assam to reach 3,000 in at least seven protected areas by the year 2020. The program involved translocations to conservation areas where rhinos had become extinct. All the Animals were radio-collared and regularly monitored while joint government/community patrol units were set up to prevent poaching and encroachment and monitor the new rhino population. Despite a poaching escalation in 2012 and 2013 when translocation had to be halted, the program has been a great success. The Indian Rhino population now stands at about 3,700, including (according to a recent census) a Nepalese population of 752, up some 16 percent from 2015. Not all the goals of IRV2020 have been reached, but overall, this long-term commitment to the rehabilitation of Indian Rhino populations has to rate as one of the conservation triumphs of all time.

The fortunes of Africa’s two rhino species have also wavered over time. Like their Asian counterparts, they suffered massive losses in colonial times owing to an unconscionable spate of sport hunting. In the early 1900s, the Southern White Rhino had been reduced to a few hundred living in a remote corner of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. At that time, the Northern White Rhino was still in relatively good shape, as was the Black Rhino, which ranged far more widely throughout Africa. In historical times it was the most numerous of all the living rhinos. Even in 1900, several hundred thousand Black Rhinos remained in the wild, but by 1970, their numbers had fallen to around 70,000. By 2004, an all-time low of 2,410 in the whole of Africa had been reached, and there seemed little hope for the species. The Northern White Rhino population had also crashed, even more so, and by the 1980s, only 15 or so remained. Today this rhino subspecies is functionally extinct—the two elderly females on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy area in Kenya are the sole representatives of their genetic history.

The decimation of Black Rhinos and the Northern White Rhino resulted from the oil crisis in the early 1970s, which led to a massive inflow of funds into the Gulf States, including Yemen. Yemeni men have a centuries-old tradition of wearing a curved dagger, known as jambiya, as a symbol of manhood and social standing—the better the craftsmanship and cost of the ceremonial weapon, the greater the status of its wearer. And the most prized of all were those with handles carved from rhino horn. The demand for horns had been long established, but with the sudden affluence of many Yemenis came a surge in demand that was sustained until the early 1990s. Africa’s protected areas were ill-equipped to counter the escalation in poaching and, coupled with the twin scourges of administrative incompetence and corruption, a crippling blow was dealt to rhinos.

In South Africa and Namibia, the dagger-handle poaching wave left rhino numbers relatively unscathed—in fact, the White Rhino population was making a remarkable recovery. By the late 1950s, they numbered about 1,000, and it was feared that they had begun to outstrip their food resources in the reserves. Instead of resorting to culling, it was proposed that the “excess” rhinos would be moved back into suitable habitats elsewhere in Africa.

Spearheading this brave effort was South Africa’s doyen conservationist Dr. Ian Player and his small team. And so began Operation Rhino, a process over a decade or so of re-establishing White Rhino populations across Africa and sending them to wildlife parks in Europe and the US. Within six years of its launch, more than 600 individuals had been moved, and by the end of the 1900s, close to 1,300 had new homes. Kwa-Zulu Natal remains a stronghold for the White Rhino, but the initiative that began there nearly six decades ago saw Africa’s Southern White Rhinos peak at around 20,000 across southern Africa and as far afield as East Africa, where previously the Northern White Rhino held sway.

But then a rumor started in Vietnam in the early 2000s that rhino horn had cured cancer in the wife of a former politician. The story went viral, and the demand for horn surged. The first to feel the effects of the global poaching machine restarting its engines was Zimbabwe, still reeling from the wave of killings in the 1980s and early 90s. Poverty, social turmoil, and corruption made Zimbabwe’s rhinos an easy target, and in 2008, 164 rhinos were killed for their horns. In South Africa, there was also a bump in 2008 —it was a dire warning of what was to come.

Some felt that the poaching impetus came from traditional markets in China, but there was also speculation that it was the dealers and collectors of rhino horn that gave rise to the Vietnamese cancer cure rumor to drive up the value of their stockpiles as the scarcity of rhinos grew. Whatever the truth of the matter, the consequences were dramatic.

In 2008, 333 rhinos were killed in South Africa, then 448 in the following year, after that climbing dramatically each year, ballooning to an all-time high of 1,215 in 2014. By then, Kruger National Park, vulnerable along its long porous border with Mozambique, was the focus of the killings, with two-thirds of all the recorded crimes taking place within its boundaries.

Since the annus horribilis of 2014, poaching numbers have fallen steadily. But while increased vigilance of anti-poaching units has undoubtedly had a positive effect, many feel, with justification, that the main reason for the drop in poaching is simply because there are now far fewer rhinos to poach. Sadly, statistics bear this out. The IRF reported recently that only about 2,607 white rhinos remain in the Kruger National Park, while in 2011, there were thought to be 10,621. The Black Rhino population has also crashed from 415 in 2013 to 202. This is an even steeper decline in rhino populations in the park than previously reported. In total, South Africa has lost nearly 10,000 rhinos in little more than a decade. And the war continues, even showing signs of an increase since the short respite during the strict Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020. Indeed, the battle to secure a long-term future for rhinos is clearly far from over.

However, notwithstanding the terrible and deeply concerning toll on Africa’s rhinos, good things have also happened, things that offer more than a glimmer of hope. WWF’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP) is a case in point. In many ways, it mirrors Dr. Player’s efforts in the 1960s and 70s as the program is predicated on moving rhinos back into places they once were. The project began in 2003 when Africa’s Black Rhino population had reached its nadir. Today there are 13 new black rhino populations in South Africa, covering more than 766,000 acres —270 black rhinos have been moved to these project sites, and more than 100 surviving calves have been produced. Even in Zimbabwe, rhino numbers are on the up, and 2020 saw a mini-baby boom with 17 new black rhino calves and two white rhino calves spotted during the year. All-in-all, Africa’s Black Rhinos have recovered to around 5,500, a more than 100 percent increase since the dark years of the mid-1990s.

There is even good news for the beleaguered Southern White Rhino. In late 2021, 30 of them (19 females and 11 males) were moved from the Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal to establish a new population in the Akagera National Park in Rwanda. According to African Parks, the NGO that manages Akagera, this was the largest single translocation of the species ever. I am sure that this achievement has also pleased the spirit of Dr. Player.

Despite the many deprivations visited on the world’s rhino species, I am confident that they are all in safer hands today than they were 100 years ago. Science, relocations, technology, conservation practice, and sheer, dogged determination have all played their part. So, when the question is asked, have all the efforts to save the world’s rhinos been worthwhile, my answer is a resounding “Yes!” Now, the challenge is to keep going.