Rhinos—slipping away on an ebbing tide?

By September 22, 2021Editorial

Black Rhino in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania. © Salparadis/Shutterstock.

Evolutionarily speaking, it would seem that the once great and widespread rhino family is receding on an ebbing tide. Our choice as fellow travelers in space and time is whether to hasten the flow of their demise through our insane compulsion to kill and otherwise exploit them for their horns or, at little or no cost to ourselves, to provide them with a few wild refuges to live out their time on Earth in relative safety. Something, perhaps, to contemplate on this 10th anniversary of World Rhino Day?

Broadly speaking, the story of rhinos began, as with all life forms, soon after our planet was born. But it took an awfully long time before anything like the horned giants of today began to roam the plains and forests of the world. In fact, Earth was already some 99 percent along its 4.5-billion-year path to the present before the first creatures we can definitely place as the ancestors of rhinos loped onto the evolutionary stage. Most were smallish stocky creatures, but one —Paraceratherium—was a hornless giant. While estimates of its true size have probably been exaggerated, it may well have been the largest mammal ever to have existed. At some 23 ft tall and weighing 16.5–22 tons, it was taller than a giraffe and three times heavier than an African elephant.

Then, about 34 million years ago, as the global climate cooled and rainfall lessened, the great grasslands of the world began to spread. Powerful running creatures evolved to fit the open vistas of the Miocene—as did the predators to catch them. The conditions were also to the liking of rhinos. During an anomalous climatic period of relative warmth, they grew in abundance and diversity. They spread from Asia into Europe and, thanks to low sea levels and a resultant land bridge, across from Asia into North America. This was their Golden Age, with many species evolving across more than 50 genera. However, it wasn’t to last as a rapidly cooling climate returned around 14 million years ago. Rhinos were amongst the many creatures that found the transition difficult, and the majority did not make it across into the Pliocene Epoch, which began some 5.4 million years ago. The decline has continued to the present. The five extant species of today, together with their evolutionary cousins, the horses, and tapirs, are the remnants of the once diverse and plentiful perissodactyl order, the odd-toed grazers and browsers that have journeyed with us down through the pathways of time.

Until recently, it was thought that the split between rhinos with single horns and those with two was genetically significant. But research now shows the geographic divide between African and Eurasian rhinos, which happened around 16 million years ago, to be the key genetic factor. The studies also revealed that all rhinos, even the extinct ones, have a comparatively low genetic diversity, so the fact that we see this trait in present-day rhinos is partly, at least, an historical consequence of their biology. And, because science suggests that levels of genetic diversity in rhinos haven’t led to an increase in health problems related to inbreeding and disease-causing mutations, this could have positive implications for rhino conservation.

“Now we know that the low diversity we see in contemporary individuals may not be indicative of an inability to recover, but instead a natural state of rhinoceros,” says one of the research authors, Mick Westbury of the University of Copenhagen. “We can better guide recovery programs to focus on increasing population size rather than individual genetic diversity.”

Positive conservation interventions are critical for the survival of all rhinos, but these new findings could have particular relevance for the Sumatran and Javan Rhinos, whose population sizes are a paltry 80 or so and 75, respectively. The only chance these species have of any recovery is to capture wild individuals and then build numbers in special breeding facilities. An existing breeding center in southern Sumatra is currently home to seven Sumatran Rhinos, including two calves born there. In 2018, an individual was captured in Indonesian Borneo and taken to a second center, while plans are underway to open a third center in northern Sumatra. At present, there is no similar program for the Javan Rhino as there are none in captivity. However, the critically endangered Javan species delivered some encouraging news in August this year when two calves were spotted by the monitoring team in Ujung Kulon National Park, the rhino’s one and only remaining sanctuary.

Population news for two other rhino species is more positive.

Indian Rhinos have been increasing steadily in recent years, and the population now tops the 3,700 mark. This encouraging state of affairs is partly a result of Nepal’s recent rhino census, which revealed that the country’s rhino population had grown to 752, from 645 in 2015. Across the border, in India, rhinos number about 3,000. More than 80 percent of these live in just one location, Assam’s Kaziranga National Park, where poaching has been well controlled in recent years. Notwithstanding, the Indian Rhino faces two other significant threats: human/wildlife conflict and habitat destruction. The large concentration of rhinos in Kaziranga, only 166 square miles in extent, is a concern (Kruger National Park, South Africa’s rhino stronghold, is almost 19,500 square miles by comparison). So, India’s program of translocating rhinos to other national parks is an essential aspect of the country’s conservation strategy. There have been notable successes, but they are small in the context of the species’ historical range that once extended from Pakistan into northern India and modern-day Myanmar, reaching into Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan.

In Africa, the Black Rhino has also made a remarkable comeback. The devastating poaching wars from the late 1970s to the early 1990s saw the species’ numbers crash from around 65,000 in 1970 to 2,410 in 1995. It almost heralded their slide into extinction. However, translocation, breeding efforts, and range expansion programs have saved the day, and despite the deprivations of the current poaching crisis, their numbers have continued to rise steadily to 5,630 in 2020.

The White Rhino saga, of course, eclipses the successes and efforts of all other species. Well, it would have done so, even more emphatically, but for the sad fact that the current poaching massacre spanning the past ten years or so has been directed almost solely at this magnificent animal, the largest of all the living rhinos. In a remote corner of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province in the 1960s, an extraordinary relocation program took hold and numbers burgeoned, an effort initially spearheaded and championed by the late Ian Player and his colleagues. By 2012 the population of no more than 1,000 was touching 21,000. Since then, the wholesale killing of White Rhinos has seen the demise of over 10,000, the majority in their Kruger stronghold, but significant numbers also in the reserves of KwaZulu-Natal. The official White Rhino count is estimated at somewhere between 17,212 and 18,915. But looking at the situation in Kruger alone, one has to seriously question the integrity of these statistics. The International Rhino Foundation’s State of the Rhino: 2021 reports that some estimates place the total White Rhino population at no more than 15,500. If this is indeed true, the species’ population has dropped by some 25 percent in the past decade.

From 2011–2020 Kruger National Park’s White Rhino population crashed from some 10,600 individuals to a reported range of between 6,649 and 7,850, and then to a mere 3,549 in 2020. Some commentators suggest that there is anecdotal evidence for an even larger loss. In less than a decade, South Africa’s premier conservation area—the focus of the current poaching crises—has lost some 67 percent of its White Rhinos. (Kruger has never held a large population of Black Rhinos, but those present have also taken a hammering—from an estimated 427–586 in 2017, the population has fallen to only 268 in 2020—a loss of some 54 percent over three years.)

The South African government’s environment ministry has made much of the drop-off in poaching from the ghastly high of 1,215 rhinos lost to poaching in 2014. While this is true—the total for 2020 fell to 394, and so far from January to the end of June this year, total poaching deaths stand at 249, suggesting a probable 500 or so by the end of the year. This data, however, needs to be seen in its proper context. If South Africa has indeed lost 24 percent of its rhinos, and if Kruger’s population is down to 3,549 or even lower, then the poachers are chasing down ever fewer rhinos. And each death, therefore, represents an increasingly heavy blow to the remaining population. The current losses are certainly far from sustainable, and unless considerably further curtailed, the outlook for White Rhinos is grim indeed.

Furthermore, it is hard to understand why we don’t have a firmer grip on South Africa’s real rhino numbers. If Nepal can manage a complete census of its rhinos and countries such as Kenya can undertake a full census of their wildlife, why can’t South Africa? This ongoing reluctance to share crucial statistics is unconscionable. The suggestion that such intelligence is sensitive and could be helpful to the poaching syndicates is equally ridiculous. I would imagine that without any help at all, the smuggling underworld has a very accurate understanding of how many rhinos there are and exactly where they happen to be.

There also seems to be a reluctance to disclose the true number of rhino horns held in the country’s various private and state stockpiles. These should, for once and for all, be subject to a proper transparent audit. If India can do it ahead of their intended destruction of Assam’s stockpile, then we can do it too. All that prevarication in openly sharing important data achieves is to breed harmful speculation and suggestions of nefarious dealings.

Transparency, cooperation, and common purpose in all matters to do with Rhino conservation is the only sure way forward if we are to honor World Rhino Day’s invocation to “keep the five alive.” Just as essential as all the outstanding work being done at the coalface of conservation are the legal and policing tools to bring the poaching and smuggling crime rings to their knees. Dr. Jo Shaw, Senior Manager of WWF South Africa’s wildlife program, sums it up well. “Over the last decade, dedicated police officers, rangers, investigators, prosecutors, private security companies, conservationists, veterinarians, reserve managers, and game farmers have given their all to address the threats to rhinos from wildlife trafficking—despite the odds. Yet stopping rhino poaching is as much about combatting organized crime as are efforts to dismantle the syndicates driving drug trafficking, arms smuggling, cash-in-transit heists, gold robberies, and human trafficking. Implementing effective law enforcement strategies to disrupt rhino poaching syndicates can also ensure that communities become safer and more resilient—by breaking up these networks, cracking down on corruption, and creating a climate with opportunities for socio-economic development.”

Tanya dos Santos, Global Head of Sustainability for the Investec Group and Head of Investec Rhino Lifeline, stresses the important role the banking system has to play, as it has the skills and resources to detect “dirty money” associated with wildlife crimes and report suspicious activity to law enforcement agencies.

“We keep hearing that to disrupt the criminal networks, we need to ‘follow the money,'” says dos Santos. “But this is easier said than done,” she continues, explaining how financial flows associated with wildlife trafficking have traditionally depended on cash transactions in source countries, where poachers at the bottom of the trade chain receive smaller disbursements, which multiply as you go up the ladder.

“But with the advent of the “cashless” economy, we now see these payments being made through mobile money transfers, iTunes vouchers, and even cryptocurrencies. This is making it increasingly difficult to follow the distribution of money,” says dos Santos. “While financial flows at the source are mostly cash-based, further up the supply chain, international wildlife crime syndicates rely on the global banking system to move funds.” The sophistication of current anti-money laundering investigative practices can substantially assist wildlife crime investigations, helping to identify culpable individuals and their derived profits and potentially to allow the seizure and confiscation of their ill-gotten gains.

When all is said and done, however, the illicit trade in rhino horn (and many other wildlife products) would be negligible but for the consumer demand in two countries: China and Vietnam. And given the highly effective yet brutally authoritarian totalitarian might of the Chinese government, it is hard to believe that Xi Jinping could not sign the rhino horn trade into oblivion with one stroke of his pen and a few hard stares in the direction of his security, policing and law-enforcement cohorts. Such is China’s influence over the affairs of neighboring Vietnam that dealing with that country’s role in trafficking and using rhino horn would not take much more than a stern phone call from Xi’s desk.

China has made so many statements about ending or coming down hard on illegal wildlife activities, but not much happens in reality. The only conclusion one can draw is that the Chinese state hierarchy doesn’t give a damn. And can rhinos find any respite, despite the heroic global efforts to bring this about, in the face of such potent indifference? Sadly, I doubt it.

Note: Unless otherwise acknowledged, much of the above information can be found in Rhino Review.