Paul Reynolds's Blog

Part 2: Rhinoceros Conservation: An introduction

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    If you have not read part 1 of this article (which includes descriptions of the 5 species of Rhino) I would suggest a quick read, as the following article assumes prior knowledge of rhino species/distribution/characteristics etc.

    Rhinos have been driven to near extinction – the world rhino population has fallen by more than 90 percent in the past 30 years. Whereas 30 species of rhino once roamed the planet, only five species remain today, and all of them are endangered. Conservation projects exist across Africa and Asia working desperately to conserve the rhino. The main threats faced by all species of rhino are poaching for their horns, habitat loss and as populations decrease; a reduction in genetic viability with inbreeding depression.

    The pointless slaughter of a rhino from South Africa for its horns

    The most abundant of all the rhino species is the southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum) (classified as near threatened) with a population estimated to between 14,500 and 18,000. However, this hasn’t always been so, at the turn of the 20th century there were fewer than  200 individuals left in the wild as a direct result of extreme poaching and habitat destruction in South Africa during the 19th century. Thanks to conservationists and researchers the Southern white rhino abundance increased significantly and continues to do so today, which offers some limited hope for other rhino species whose population numbers have plummeted in recent years. The Northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) has potentially already become extinct in the wild with as few as 7 individuals left in captivity. A breeding program has begun in Kenya, with the hope of reintroducing the Northern white rhino back into the wild but with such a small population remaining the odds are slim. The black rhino (Diceros bicornis)is critically endangered and is found in Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Rwanda, S Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Black rhino numbers have increased over the last 7 years from about 2,500 to about 4,200 as a direct result of conservation efforts by groups such as the International Rhino Foundation, however, they still remain critically endangered. Of the 4 subspecies of black rhino the Western black rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes)  was declared extinct in 2011. Like all rhino they were heavily hunted during the early 20th century, however, the population began to grow in the 1930′s due to conservation work, but due to a lack of management, protection lapsed over the latter half of the century, by the 1980′s the population was down to the hundreds and with increased poaching by 2000 an estimated 10 individuals remained in Northern Cameroon. Poaching and the failure of governments and agencies led to the demise of  the western black rhino and as there are no known individuals in captivity this sub-species may well be gone forever.

    The following graph illustrates rhino population estimates in South Africa since 1993:

    As you can see from the graph the white rhino as discussed earlier has increased significantly in population size whereas the black rhino is a far more gradual process.

    The Indian Rhino (AKA greater one horned) is classified as vulnerable and (Rhinoceros unicornis) like the Southern white rhino is another success story in regards to the power of proper conservation measures and Government co-operation  in bringing species back from the edge. In the early 20th century the population was estimated to be fewer than 200, however with strict co-operation coming from the Indian and Nepalese wildlife authorities the population has increased to approximately 2,850 today. However as we have seen with the Western black rhino and other animal species in the past a recovery today does not mean that the species is out of danger, as the recovery is still precarious without continued and increased support.

    The video below shows one success (and the determination) of the rhino anti-poacher patrols in Kaziranga National Park, India:

    The Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) is critically endangered and is only known to be found within Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park in west Java after the other population found within Vietnam (sub-species: Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus) became extinct when the last one was shot by a poacher in 2010. It is the rarest of all rhino species with only 27-44 individuals remaining. They are guarded 24 hours a day by armed Rhino Protection Units which when combined with establishing a second population of the species is the best hope of preventing this species from going extinct. The IUCN Asian Rhino Specialist Group recommended that the “Vietnamese” Javan rhinos should be bred with the “Indonesian” Javan rhinos to try to increase the species’ population and to preserve genetic diversity.  Unfortunately, politics got in the way of saving the Vietnamese populaiton. The government of Vietnam would have to had given permission for the rhinos to be captured and translocated to another country, or the Indonesian government permission to transfer rhinos to Vietnam.  Neither government was willing to do this, which is why intergovernmental co-operations is essential to conservation practices on a global scale. Politics should not be a barrier to conservation efforts! Loss of habitat, especially as the result of wars, such as the Vietnam War, in Southeast Asia, has also contributed to the species’s decline and hindered recovery

    The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is critically endangered and is declining faster than any other rhino species as a direct result of poaching. Population numbers have decreased by more than 50% over the last 20 years, with fewer than 200 remaining. Indonesia and Sabah, Malaysia hold the only significant populations. Sumatran rhinos exist only is protected areas where they are physically guarded from harm by Rhino Protection Units. Between 12 and 25 animals remain in Sabah, Malaysia. The remainder of the population lives in three Indonesian National Parks in Sumatra: Gunung Leuser, Way Kambas, and Bukit Barisan Selatan.

    The demand for rhino horn for use in Chinese medicine (not just in china but throughout Asia) is increasing and with that comes a higher price for the rhino horn and thus an increase in poaching. More than 400 rhinos were lost in south africa last year and the number has been increasing each year. The graph below illustrates the rise in rhino poaching in south africa in over the last 11 years:

    In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the horn, which is shaved or ground into a powder and dissolved in boiling water, is used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders. According to the 16th century Chinese pharmacist Li Shi Chen, the horn could also cure snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and “devil possession.” (However, it is not, as commonly believed, prescribed as an aphrodisiac).

    Historical mentions of other uses for the horns date back thousands of years. In Greek mythology, they were said to possess the ability to purify water. The ancient Persians of the 5th century BC thought that vessels carved from the horn could be used to detect poisoned liquids, causing bubbles in the presence of some poisons — a belief that persisted into the 18th and 19th centuries among the royal courts of Europe.

    Modern science has more or less disproved many of the supposed uses of rhino horn in medicine and indeed come up with modern medical alternatives which are far more effective at curing the aforementioned conditions.

    If the remaining species of rhino are to survive beyond the next century an increase in education about rhinos and the supposed medicinal use of the horn is necessary along with increased funds for anti poaching patrols, tougher sentences on poachers and an increase in suitable habitat, particularly for the Asian species.

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