Rhinos trotting to extinction

Kruger National Park | July 2020

If life on earth could be expressed on a 24-hour clock, where the 24th hour is our present day and age, humans would have been on earth from roughly 23:58:43. Our existence here on earth has been a mere “1 minute and 17 seconds” and as a species we have optimised this time and achieved so much with what seems a brief moment on the planet. In the “77 seconds” we have had multiple breakthroughs such as successfully domesticating fire, we created a wheel that spear-headed our transportation system, we have mastered flight, we have sent men to the moon and beyond, we created written and verbal language and made several technological advances that have changed our world. With so much success we have also become the most destructive species on Earth. Extinction rates to date, are over 100 times higher than the natural or background extinction rate. In a 24-hour time span there is a combined total of about 150 plant, insect, bird and mammal species becoming extinct, which has resulted in millions of extinctions over time, either as a direct result of human influence and/or indirect result.

Trotting into oblivion are our rhinoceros populations, which are thought to have been on Earth for over a million years. The oldest rhino fossil found in Tibet is of the woolly rhino, which was estimated to be alive some 3.6 million years ago to as near as 10 000 years ago. When this beast was remodelled, it looks like today’s modern rhino, with its closest living relative being the Sumatran rhino, it just had a lot more hair to be able to combat the low temperatures of that region, in those times. This tells us that for thousands of years rhinos have not had to evolve dramatically as their armour-like physique has been sufficient enough to keep them from danger and the path of extinction; but in a matter of “77seconds” we have brought the entire species to its knees, with subspecies such as the northern white rhino on the brink of extinction.

The Northern White Rhino has two living members left, the mother and daughter duo (Naju and Fatu) who both are unable to carry a pregnancy. So that coupled with the fact that they are no living male Northern White Rhino’s makes it impossible for natural procreation. This however, has not disheartened the global scientific community who are set on saving the subspecies, by using In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF). They have successfully fertilized eggs that were masterfully removed from Naju and Fatu, with carefully preserved sperm of the last two males before their deaths, and the embryos have been stored in liquid nitrogen. However, the next step of transferring the embryos into a surrogate, which in this case will be a Southern White Rhino has been disrupted due to the Covid-19 outbreak as the conservationists involved are from Kenya, Czech Republic, Germany and Italy, most of which are affected by closed borders or restricted travel. I believe this is a great initiative however I am not convinced that it is going to be a long term solution, seeing how the future of an entire population rests on the genetic diversity of a mother and daughter duo, who are also related to one of the males whose sperm was preserved, he was the father and grandfathers respectively to the two, the only genetic variance would come from the second last male Angalifu, but I strongly believe that this will still not be enough to combat health defects surrounding inbreeding such as reduced fertility, lower birth rate, higher infant mortality and increased genetic disorders to name a few.

The northern white rhino is not the only subspecies endangered, rhino numbers in their entirety are decreasing rapidly. These beautiful beasts were found all over the world, in most continents including Europe and North America, but their natural distribution has been reduced, naturally and with human intervention, to Asia and Africa with over 80% of the rhino population found in Africa. From over 900 000 rhinos globally in the wild in the 1900s, we have brought that number down to less than about 27 000 rhinos in the wild (World Wildlife Fund 2020), namely the Javan rhino with less than seventy individuals, the Sumatran rhino with less than eighty individuals, the greater one-horned rhino with over 3 500 individuals, the black rhino with over 5 000 individuals (40% of which are found in South Africa), and white rhino with roughly 17 000 individuals (80% of which are found in SA). That is roughly a 97% decrease of the global rhino number, meaning just over 870 000 rhinos ceasing to exist, over a period of 120 years.

The decrease in the rhino population over the past century can be attributed to many reasons, such as habitat loss, where humans encroached on natural areas rhinos previously found themselves occupying, and/or destruction of these areas for natural resources, which then leads to small isolated populations where rhinos can’t get together and breed, which results in a decrease of the gene pool and weakens the species genetically and physically. Habitat loss would also result in a reduction of resources such as food and water. In more recent years, however, poaching has been a major factor in the dramatic decrease of rhino numbers, poachers mainly targeting the rhinos for their horns. The main idea of using rhino horn for medicine, goes as far back as 1597 in Li Shihchens medical text “Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu”. Today, in addition to medicinal use, rhino horn is used for curing a hangover, used as an aphrodisiac, used as a recreational drug and/or the horn itself is used as a status symbol and there are many communities (mainly in Asia) who are still committed to this practice.

Rhino horn is primarily made up of keratin which is a protein found in hair, nails and animal hooves, and thus, there is no scientific evidence to support it having any medicinal powers, the only higher purpose it serves is being a defence mechanism for the rhino itself. So the poaching of rhinos for their horns is fruitless, however it is still a big contributor to the decrease of rhino numbers. Poaching of our rhinos in Africa is usually increased by political conflict/wars because poachers are working more easily (without reprimand) in unstable countries, and the financial reward for poaching is luring criminal gangs to fund their own criminal agendas and allowing them to purchase arms for wars. In African countries which find themselves in far better political situations, poachers and their associates are purely drawn by insatiable greed and the prospect of “fast money”.

Today they are plenty efforts to counteract poaching however, I strongly believe all conservation efforts are wasted if there is still a demand for rhino horn, in saying this, I believe rhinos can only be saved from the jaws of extinction, when the ancient practice of rhino horn usage is destroyed, and that belief system/culture can only be broken by “governments” governing areas where there is a demand and where trade exists. In my opinion those regions and their leaders would firstly all need to criminalize rhino horn, by putting sanctions on the use, transport and trade of it, and more importantly educate their people (young and old) about the scientific facts surrounding rhino horn use and the devastating effects it has. If those steps are put in place there will no longer be a demand for rhino horn, and ultimately there will no longer be a need for supplies for the horn. In the process of cutting the demand for rhino horn, I strongly believe African countries who have illegal or legal rhino horns in their possession, should follow in Kenya’s footprints and burn their stock piles, which will send a clear message as a united front that we are against rhino poaching, all while ensuring that those stock piles will never reach the intended destination and that the blood spilt for those horns will never be exchanged for money.

Existing conservation efforts are aimed at treating the symptoms but not curing the disease mentioned above, such as;

  • Translocation which sees rhinos moved into safe havens in or outside of Africa.
  • The hot pursuit agreement basically states that police are allowed to follow poachers beyond their borders while on pursuit (mostly by which stage the rhino is already dead and it is a retrieval of the horn and arrest of the poacher).
  • Dyeing the horn is another effort that is established whereby the horns are drilled and dye/poison (toxic for human consumption) is inserted and is harmless to the rhinos (long term effect is unknown at this stage). In itself the idea had promise in smaller reserves where rhino numbers are quantifiable and/or manageable, if, and only if, poachers and traders are all made “aware” that the rhino horns in that region are poisoned (even then most don’t care about the wellbeing of the final customer), however, in larger game reserves capture and release of every single rhino will prove to be a large task and as rhino populations increase and it would be a lifetime project (as horns are continually growing), and capture and release would be a cost not many can afford. The same can be said about shaving the rhinos horn which is their main defence. There are also some scientists who believe the answer lies in 3D printing rhino horn and then flooding the market with fake rhino horn, my concern is that although it will decrease the value of the rhino horn, it will also then open up the trade to more middle and lower income buyers which can be millions of people, which ultimately increases the demand.
  • Last but definitely not least a conservation effort that is currently underway all over Africa, is the use of Anti-poaching Units, which are men and women who are out in the field physically, technologically, and skilfully fighting the war on poaching, both on the ground and in the sky to ensure they reduce the number of poachers, and offer protection to the rhinos in the area. But like all wars, this has hundreds of casualties, which results in innocent blood being shed.

Paul Oxton once said, “Humanity can no longer stand by in silence while our wildlife is being used, abused and exploited. It is time we all stand together, to be the voice of the voiceless before it’s too late. Extinction means forever.” And I agree with him. We owe it to ourselves and our planet to be advocates for nature and protect the land we live on. We need to act harmoniously as we are all interconnected. Something seemingly as small as teaching each other right and wrong, and holding each other accountable for protecting and conserving nature can cause positive ripple effects on our daily way of life, and the future we are trying to build, the TIME is now, this is our minute.

To the men and women who have given their lives on the ground for our amazing rhinos, and all conservation projects, I salute you and say, “A luta continua, vitória é certa”. (The struggle continues, victory is certain.)

Photographs by: Mike Kirby, Tovhi Mudau, Solomon Ndlovu