Earlier this month, I joined the International Rhino Foundation team as its new Program Officer and I’m very thankful for the opportunity to work with such a dedicated group of individuals in the effort to save some of Earth’s most threatened species. I look forward to sharing my perspectives regarding this magnificent group of living creatures with those who support rhino conservation efforts worldwide, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading my blogs. Some, like this one, will be of a very serious nature. Others will be a bit more light-hearted and peppered with rhino trivia. I think it’s important to strike a balance between the task at hand – saving the world’s rhinos – and the reasons for doing this – our fascination with them.
Surviving the Slaughter
As a group, rhinos have been reduced to a handful of “final strongholds” in Africa and Asia. Of the five living species, three – the Javan, Sumatran and black rhinos - are listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN- The World Conservation Union, a classification that carries the very real possibility of extinction by the end of the 21st century if existing conditions don’t change. Asia’s greater one-horned rhino is listed as Vulnerable, which means that its prospects for survival are considerably higher – but it’s far from safe. Meanwhile, Africa’s white rhino numbers are large enough to warrant the more optimistic status of Near Threatened, which means that the species is in reasonably good shape today thanks to ongoing conservation efforts. What’s important to remember, however, is that these classifications require regular review and that the situation for rhinos can deteriorate quickly due to pressures from our own species.
Throughout history, rhino populations worldwide have been subjected both to relentless hunting pressure and periodic episodes of intense slaughter. They’ve been pursued for their valuable horns, as the result of civil unrest, and as part of grand eradication schemes to settle wilderness areas. As a result, certain populations have crashed to the point of near extinction. Conservationists, however, have come to the rescue several times with last-ditch efforts, building white rhino populations back up from the low hundreds to the many thousands, hoping to achieve similar results with black and greater one-horned rhinos, and digging in to protect the last remaining pockets of Javan and Sumatran rhinos.
Unfortunately, it appears that rhinos are once again fixed in the crosshairs of poachers’ rifles and we have entered a new period of slaughter, particularly in Africa. Year-end reports from countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya all record significant increases in poaching. Asian rhinos, fortunately, have not been subject to similar assaults, which their populations could by no means sustain. What this tells us is that protection efforts are currently meeting the challenge for some rhino species and must be maintained at all costs, while heroic efforts on behalf of other species may need to be increased significantly to counter the current upsurge in poaching. Rhino conservationists need to do more of what’s worked over the last decade, we should not be discouraged by setbacks, as bad as recent news from the field may be, and we must be prepared to do any even better job in the months and years ahead.
Support for IRF’s Operation: Stop Poaching Now will help safeguard rhinos in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Year-end donations to this campaign were remarkable, and will be invested in training and equipment for rangers, helping to improve anti-poaching efforts in close to a dozen threatened rhino habitats. Many thanks to those of you who have helped support this critical initiative.