The one thing that all who are involved in rhino conservation can agree on is that there is no sliver bullet, no single thing that if done will alone save the five remaining species, the survivors of some 55 million years of evolution. What’s more, protecting rhinos is beyond the abilities of any single person or organization, no matter how big and globally influencial they might be. Rhino conservation, if it is to be lasting and successful, is a collaborative effort across many disciplines. Land conservation, rescue and rehabilitation, translocation and range expansion, science and technology, anti-poaching efforts, demand reduction, youth education, local community engagement, media awareness, volunteering, and laws and legislation are all part of the mix.
Generally, the recommended target is that at least 10 per cent of every biological distinct area of a country—forest, savanna and grassland for example—be set aside. But such a system doesn’t necessarily guarantee the best protection of the most important areas. And it doesn’t mean that those areas are well looked after. For example at first glance many African and Asian countries appear to have far more than the recommended amount of land under protection, but this is misleading as, sadly, many of these areas are poorly managed and poorly financed.
Graphs based on information from:
The United Nations Environment Programme—World Consevation Monitoring Centre (UNEP–WCMC) (2019), The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) statistics. Cambridge, UK: UNEP–WCMC. Accessed on: [30 July 2019].
In the Asian range states virtually all land under conservation is controlled by national ministeries and their agencies. This also pertains for many of the African range states, but in a numberof them community and private conservation areas play critical roles as well, and increasingly so. For example, in Kenya where terrestrial conservation areas constitute slightly more than 12 per cent of the country’s land area, conservancies under communual and private control are home to some 65 per cent of all wildlife in the country. In Namibia and Zimbabwe rural communities also play very important roles in wildlife conservation, while in South Africa, some 6 per cent and 13 per cent of the country’s land area are, respectively, under state and private conservation ownership. Private conservation in South Africa plays a particularly relevant role in rhino conservation. White Rhinos in private sanctuaries now number almost 7,000—that’s nearly half the entire national count. There are also several hundred Black Rhinos in private hands in South Africa.
While the safety of the world’s remaining rhinos in their present state, private and community sanctuaries has to be an immediate conservation objective, in the longer term re-establishing viable breeding populations in as many parts of their former range must also be an important conservation goal. In Africa, such projects aimed at re-wilding former habitats will rely heavily on state and private rhino owners in South Africa to provide the new breeding stock. On the Asian subcontinent this role will fall mainly to Kaziranga in India and Chitwan in Nepal, while In Malaysia and Indonesia the fate of Javan and Sumatran Rhinos rests first with successful breeding programs, but then also on finding new safe sanctuaries if any renaissance of those two species is to be possible.
These extreme circumstances have bred extraordinary medical skills and knowledge. Researchers from the Veterinary Wildlife Research Group in the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Veterinary Science, for example, are renowned for their work in the field of rhino rehabilitation. Dr. Johan Marais is a member of this team and is regarded as one of the best rhino surgeons in the world. He has worked on many rhinos suffering severe trauma, often having to use surgical procedures and wound treatments that have never been attempted before. The team is also researching the rhino’s reaction to anesthetic drugs—the most effective ones to use, and how best to administer them.
All attempts to save badly injured rhinos are testing, but some present seemingly insurmountable obstacles. One such case involved a four-year-old female white rhino who had had her face mutilated by poachers. Although left in the open to die, she was found alive, but with a gaping nasal cavity that required innovative technology to build her a new face—collagen sheets were inserted into the living tissue of the wound to create a matrix onto which cells could grow and the wound to close.
Losing any rhino to poaching is bad enough but when the victim is a female the tragedy is often exacerbated, as the chances are that she will have had a calf at her side. Baby rhinos that are orphaned in the wild rarely survive. And even when they do make it through the first few days, their care and rehabilitation is a long-term and costly business. Thanks to generous support from NGOs and private and corporate donors there are a number of excellent sanctuaries devoted to nurturing injured and orphaned rhinos in many range states. Even within these care facilities the rhinos are at risk as poachers have been known to attack them and so, over and above the cost of saving and caring for victims, further funds are needed for security measures.
Among the challenges of raising orphaned and young rhinos is to provide a space big enough for their needs and as near to a natural habitat as can be provided. Providing mud wallows for rhinos in rehabilitation facilities is important for example, not just because rhinos enjoy them but because they are significantly therapeutic—the mud helps to keep the rhinos cool and, among other benefits, it acts as an all-in-one exfoliant, parasite control and sun block, and it helps to heal wounds.
Also, orphaned rhinos suffer from loneliness after having been so brutally deprived of their mothers. Some are inconsolable and the way to their recovery is sometimes via a surrogate parent, not always another rhino as one might expect but unlikely companions such as sheep. Sometimes orphans will form strong bonds with other bereft babies.
Understandably, we tend to associate rhino rescue and rehabilitation solely with the surge of poaching, but this insn’t always the case. In India, for example, three very young rhinocalves were rescued in Kaziranga National Park when they were swept away in severe floods. They were hand reared on human milk formula at a nearby sanctuary until they reached two years of age, and then on solids and vegetation. One of the great challenges in India is to remove the stress and risk of having so many rhinos concentrated in one place—Kaziranga—and to repopulate previous rhino habitats. And so, at the age of about three years, the calves were translocated to Manas National Park, some 312 miles away (500 kilometers) from Kaziranga, where they were placed in a pre-release area and allowed to roam freely. After about two years the calves were released into Manas National Park. Happily they all survived and created their own home ranges.
Despite these achievements, all rhinos today are much reduced over their former ranges—in many parts they are locally extinct—and much of their future rests in their successful reintroduction back into the landscapes where they once roamed. Even for the Sumatran and Javan Rhinos of which there are fewer than 100 of each, their survival will eventually depend on extending the current pockets of their remaining sanctuaries.
Translocation is an exacting and costly business, and even with the best care under the management of the most experienced wildlife movers and park managers, success is far from guaranteed as evidenced by the sad death of rhinos translocated from South Africa to Zakouma National Park in Chad in 2018. Their demise is thought to have been a result of low fat reserves suggesting maladaptation to their new environment as the likely underlying cause.
Successes far outweigh the setbacks, however, and moving rhino to new locations, a time-honored strategy which began with Operation Rhino in the 1960s, will no doubt continue as opportunities arise. Here are some examples:
- By the 1980s, Botswana’s rhinos, both Black and White were in a state of complete collapse. in 1992 there were fewer than 19 White Rhino in the wild and the Black Rhino was was classified as ‘Locally Extinct’. A year later both species had been lost and there were no wild rhinos in in Botswana. Government and NGO determination then combined to bring them back and now both species, numbering more than 500 individuals in total once again thrive in this safari mecca.
- In 2003 an initiative was started to re-establish Black Rhinos in parts of South Africa where they had been driven to local extinction.So far more than 170 Black Rhino have been translocated under the program and 11 new populations have been established. Furthermore, more than 60 calves have been born into these sites and the overall Black Rhino range in South Africa has grown by some 2,200 square miles (220,000 hectares). There are now about 200 Black Rhinos in these new sites across, some 10 per cent of the country’s total population.
- In June 2019 two male and three female endangered Eastern Black Rhinos Diceros bicornis michaeliwere moved to Africa from from the Dvůr Králové Safari Park in the Czech Republic. The five rhinos arrived safely and were released into special enclosures in Akagera National Park in Rwanda to allow them to acclimatize to their new surroundings before moving into a larger area from where they will eventually be released into the greater park. The five newcomers will join a population of other Eastern Black Rhinos reintroduced to the Akagera’s savanna from south Africa in 2017.
- Rhinos have even been relocated thousands of miles from their homelands to Australia and New Zealand as part ofa collective effort to save rhinos. The aim is to maintain a genetically diverse breeding crash of rhinos in these countries as an“insurance population” in the unlikel;y event that rhinos become extinct in their African homeland.
- In India, the overall objective is to establish, by 2020, a wild population of at least 3,000 Indian Rhinos across seven protected areas in the Indian state of Assam. By the early 1900s, the usual combination of hunting and habitat loss had reduced their numbers to fewer than 200 individuals in northeastern India and Nepal. Good conservation has built them back to more than 3,500, but the problem is that more than 70 per cent of them live in one park, Kaziranga in India’s Assam Province. Not only might the park have reached its carrying capacity, but any serious misfortune—natural or not— could spell disster for the species. So, moving some of the rhinos from high density areas to a greater spread of localities where they can breed, is a major priority.
One cutting edge area is the field of assisted reproductive techniques (ART) which could proove vital for the Javan and the Sumatran Rhinos both of which have populations of fewer than 100 individuals, and the Northern White Rhino which is functionally extinct—no males are alive and only two elderly females remain.
Could captive breeding programs using ART provide a lifeline for these limited rhino gene pools? Quite possibly, as ARTs have been successful over several decades for humans and domesticated livestock. And although the outcomes for wildlife species, including rhinos, have proved problematic so far, scientists are persevering.
One of several ambitious projects aims to use Northern White Rhino skin cells to produce stem cells that scientists hope could develop into viable eggs and sperm. Being able to produce a viable rhino embryo outside of the womb, however, is a long way off. Artificial insemination (AI) has also been tried, but with only limited success. One of the many difficulties scientists face is that, given the rarity of the species involved, most of the individuals available for research are older animals already struggling to breed naturally, and this makes them poor research subjects.
In respect of the Northern White Rhino, in vitro fertilization (IVF) is being explored. Neither of the surviving females ishealthy enough to give birth, so scientists hope to extract some of their eggs, combine each egg with previously collected frozen sperm and implant the resulting embryo into a surrogate female, most likely a Southern White Rhino, but possibly a horse (a living relative of rhinos).
In the area of forensics, in particular, the The Rhino DNA Index System (RHODIS®) project now provides DNA profiles of individual rhinos that can be used in evidence against poachers and smugglers. The database now contains more than 20,000 rhino samples from living animals, stockpiled horns and forensic cases. Since the first prosecution success in 2010 more than 120 criminal investigations have included genetic evidence based on the RhODIS®system.
Two of the more controversial strategies to protect rhinos are infusing horns with toxins and the manufacture of synthetic horn. The former focuses largely on devaluing horns as a commodity by infusing them with an animal-friendly toxin that would make any human consumer very ill, and indelible dye. Superficially the idea might seem to have merit, but there are serious shortcomings to be considered. Regarding a synthetic product,in 2015 several companies announced plans to make and sell bio-fabricated rhino horn, but for moral, ethical, strategic and practical reasons these have been unenthusiastically received by a wide range of stakeholders.
There are also a number of hi-tech devices such as drones and long-range poacher detection devices that are already prooving indispensible for rangers and anti-poaching teams in the field. No doubt we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wildlife benefitting from science and technology.
Although concerted anti-poaching strategies must be upheld against this onslaught, the solutions are far more complex than just increasing local, military style efforts. At the 2018 Illegal Trade in Wildlife Conference in London seven key interventions were identified:
- Increasing collaboration across continents to tackle illegal wildlife.
- Strengthening the networks of illegal wildlife trade law enforcement experts who are helping frontline countries to coordinate their efforts across smuggling routes.
- Improving an understanding of the links between illegal wildlife trade and wider security challenges.
- Building coalitions and partnerships.
- Increasing engagement between law enforcement agencies, the private sector and non-governmental organizations.
- Harnessing technology to create innovative solutions.
- Closing markets by reducing demand for illegal wildlife products
All of the above are good things to prioritize, and the African Union has a similar “to-do” list, as does the South African Development Community’s (SADC) Community Anti-poaching and Law Enforcement Strategy. The US Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking and the European Union Strategy for Africa also recognize the importance of these aspects. Although, matters such as compliance and governance are mentioned in these documents, the widespread and endemic corruption at all levels and points along the supply chain of illegal wildlife smuggling have to be seriously addressed for even the best multi-pronged approach to be successful and sustainable.
This said, good work is being done and some of this progress is highlighted in an encouraging article on the subjectwhich offers this summary: “At the source level there are innovations in anti-poaching strategies, such as new horseback patrols, use of drone technology, dogs and community policing. Local guardians and crime prevention techniques are also being used to prevent crime and not target criminals. At the transit level, there is growing capacity for monitoring and detection from training for transport sector employees, use of big data and machine learning, scanning technology and regulatory changes. These changes have been particularly dramatic in the air and sea transport sectors. In destination locations there are renewed demand-reduction campaigns, deployment of social marketing efforts and regulatory changes to commercial wildlife product markets such as ivory.”
In summary, Japan in the 1970s, South Korea into the 1980s, Taiwan in the mid 1980s and into the 1990s, and Yemen in the 1970s and 80s, were all major consumers of horn but no longer are a serious problem for rhinos. Even China in the latter years of the previous century was a relatively minor consumer, and demand only escalated there towards the end of the 1990s. During these decades more and more countries, including those in the Middle East and Asia signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and it is reasonable to accept that this was a major factor in the reduction in horn demand. No doubt, too, the United States’ threat of trade sanctions against South Korea for undermining international species protection innitiatives, was also a powerful political intervention.
We know that demand is currently heavily driven by horn consumption in Vietnam—as a social status symbol among the wealthy (as a drink made from ground horn and water), a latter day miracle cancer drug (taken alongside chemotherapy), and as a pick-me-up following bouts of heavy drinking and rich food. This can be addressed, as it has been in the past, through enforcement of CITES rules and the kind of pressure that can and should be exerted by major economic powers such as the United States and the European Union. Sponsored civil society programs, creating awareness of the consequences of horn use for rhinos and the social unacceptability of horn consumption among humans, have a significant role to play in support of such actions.
Such remarkable individuals are few and far between, but all children can help if properly informed. Witness the effect of a fun book about rhinos that was distributed to school learners in Vietnam. I’m a Little Rhino teaches children about the species, the poaching threat and the need to stifle the demand for rhino horn to save rhinos. The rationale behind this effort is that by educating children about rhinos and using fun teaching aids to do so, not only can a child’s view of rhinos be changed for life, but through them their family members can also be educated. As Do Quang Tung, the director of Vietnam’s CITES Management Authority said: “When we educate children, we also educate their parents and other family members. When we reach hundreds of children, we reach thousands of adults.”
Another innitiative brought senior learners in Vietnam—the winners of a an essay competition highlighting the plight of rhinos and the need for horn demand reduction—to South Africa to experience rhinos and the wilderness first hand. The effect on these young leaders of tomorrow was seminal: one of the students wrote this of the experience: “I have never felt so connected in my life. To the ground beneath my feet. To the air that I breathe. To all living things around me, big and small. Even to the other people around me. This is what life is all about.”
The importance of exposing of children in rhino consumer countries to the realities of the illegal trade in horn is paramount, if not first hand then at least through well crafted education programs. And, it is just as vital for children who live in rhino range states to have such experiences. Many of these young citizens live in very poor rural communities on the margins of conservations areas, but few of them have, or will ever in their lives, see a live rhino in the wild. And the chances of such an experience for city dwelling learners are even more remote, notwithstanding the many programs in the African and Asian range states that strive to bridge such travesties.
Conservation has, at best, a patchy record when it comes to working with communities. For instance, the increasing militarization of anti-poaching strategies, while undestandable given the current onslaught against rhinos, can drive a wedge between conservation authorities and rural communities. This has been highlighted in many places such as Nepal. The country has achieved enviable anti- poaching results in recent years and Chitwan rangers have been portrayed as heroes in a recent film. But their reputation has been tainted bya Buzzfeed investigation that has highlighted the abuse of local people by the same rangers. Human rights activists claim that the rights of historically marginalized people have been disregarded and that Park rangers pursue anyone they deem a rhino poacher with undue violence. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMqZctoXtH4&feature=youtu.be
Even in countries such as Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya with their long-standing successful community participation programs, relationships have gone awry for a number of reasons, including beneficiary disputes, outright corruption and other challenges and controversies. The cornerstone of successful and sustainable conservation strategies has to be mutal respect and a sense of real partnership between conservation authorities and communties. This is excellently set out in a recent report titled Ending wildlife trafficking: local communities as change agents, by Dr Annette Hübschle of the University of Cape Town. She sets out eight principles for policymakers, donors, and civil society to consider for “community-orientated pro-poorconservation outcomes”. In summary these are:
- Communities should be regarded as “fulcrum institutions” where the real challenge is not how to bring poachers to book but how to engender inclusive community support for wildlife conservation. As long as local communities remain on the margins of protected areas and their benefit schemes, we should not be surprised when they support illegal wildlife economies.
- Live rhinos need to be seen as more valuable than dead ones. Historically local communities have limited or no access to land, social and financial capital or trade networks. Natural resource benefits have been, and largely still are, vested in colonial and postcolonial elites. Redressing these issues is the only way to win the long-term support of community members as a whole.
- New thinking is needed when it comes to anti-poaching strategies. Although law-enforcement responses are important, we have to address the underlying issues that lead to poaching and trafficking. It is crucial that rural women and young people are included in finding solutions that draw on indigenous knowledge and value systems.
- New conservation models, approaches and ideas that empower local communities to make their own decisions, and ensure that their interests inform international conservation institutions are needed. These organizations have often been ‘captured’ by elite interests at the international and local level, while the voices of rural dwellers are drowned out. It needs to work the other way round.
- Although regulatory interventions should be aimed at protecting wildlife and achieving positive conservation outcomes, they should be pro-community. We need to dismantle barriers and encourage harmonious relationships which cannot be done unless the interests and aspirations of those previously deprived of their land and access to natural resources, are given voice and honored.
- The flow of money needs to change. Instead of investing in a militarized response to poaching, financial disbursements should be rechannelled to uplift the livelihoods of local people. Once conservation is seen to benefit local communities, protected areas will lose the stigma of being socially constructed wild “Edens of Africa.”
- The current practice of restricting community meeting attendance to local elites must change. Everyone—especially women and young people—should be encouraged to attend meetings that can be used to gain access to information and to establish lines of communication and accountability between communities and authorities.
- The African concept of ubuntu refers to collective values that represent personhood, humanity and morality—where an individual’s existence is relative to that of the group. Such solidarity is vital In developing community resilience to organized environmental crimes. Many responses focus on individuals (such as the recruitment of informers or rangers); however, community goodwill hinges not on the advancement of a few but of the many.
The recent explosion in social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, blogs, websites, and all their kind—have been an incredible benefit to society as instant diffusers of news and information, globally and locally. But there is a caveat—social media has also become a target for misinformation, manipulation and abuse. The result is often a confusing “noise” of unfiltered statements, opinions and, as we daily hear, “fake news.” Conservation and environmental issues are certainly not immune to the pitfalls—one only has to follow the comments on any social media articles relating to subjects such as climate change, trade in rhino horn and trophy hunting, to realize how any pretense at honest debate rapidly deteriorates into an exchange of personal and abusive rhetoric. This is not useful to the cause of conservation.
Picking one’s way through the noise to find news and information that can be relied upon—and happily there is plenty of it out there—can be daunting.
There are many pitfalls to be particularly wary of—for instance, those opportunities that offer intimate, right-up-close experiences with wild animals. The worst of these are nothing more than petting zoos—often captive predator breeding centers that are cover organizations for the canned hunting industry. Those cute little cubs that you are guaranteed to hold and cuddle can never be re-wilded no matter what the advertising pamphlets say—their future is almost certainly sealed as fodder for trophy hunters or the lion body-part industry in eastern Asia. What is more, such breeding enterprises frequently make use of unsuspecting volunteers as a source of income and cheap labor.
One of the criticisms leveled at volunteering is that it is cynically centered on privileged kids from the developed world wanting to assuage their consciences while on an overseas jolly. Others dismiss the entire notion of volunteering as a form of neocolonialism. But such broad strokes of the paintbrush are unfair, unjustified and a slight against a lot of sincere, hardworking people and their organizations. There are any number of ethical, inspirational conservation initiatives that offer experiences where participants genuinely can make a difference. Also, there are any number of people genuinely wanting to work hard at making the world a better place. So how do you put the two together? How do you tell the good from the bad and even the ugly?
The answer is to ask questions—lots of them—and not to be fobbed off with superficial answers. After all volunteering doesn’t come cheap, so you owe it to yourself and the cause you feel inclined to support, to do your homework. Make sure you know how your contribution will be divvied up.In other words how much of it goes to the actual cost of travel—airfares, transfers, visas etc.—what cut does the voluntourism agency take and, very importantly, how much ends up in the coffers of the host organization? And it doesn’t end there—you also need to be confident that your contribution will be well spent. Transparency is the key. If you get the slightest hint that the answers to your questions sound a bit vague or evasive, that is the red flag to dig deeper. Ferret around for references and testimonials from those who have done the trip before you.
For those who do have the privilege and opportunity to volunteer, do so with your eyes wide open. Hopefully, the experience will be wonderful, meaningful for all concerned, and lead to a lifelong commitment to bettering the world we live in.
All these international, legally binding agreements are of critical importance for the review and drafting of appropriate national legislation by member states. This process should result in strong, binding and consistent wildlife management laws and their equally consistent application across all states. In practice, however, this is not the case, a serious shortcoming that provides loopholes for mismanagement, corruption and crime.
The situation becomes even more vexed in terms of ongoing controversies relating to environmental law. Even the need for environmental law is challenged in some quarters, as are more appropriate questions such equity and fairness regarding rights and access to ecosystem services—for example, local communties dependent on natural resources for their food and livelihoods. Much is also made of the cost of good environmental governance and how it should be funded.
Our ultimate dependence on healthy, functioning ecosystems is widely accepted, but it has proven hard to rally the political will to protect the plants and animals that constitute them. There is broad reluctance to accept, as US Senator Gaylord Nelson (the founder of Earth Day) says “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.”