Paula Kahumbu with Andrew Halliday Friday 18 September 2015
As conservation efforts fail, scientists and economists are coming up with increasingly loony and dangerous schemes to save the rhino
Photograph: AP Photo/WWF Malaysia, Stephen Hogg, HO
Sumatran rhinoceros. In 2015 this ancient species was declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia. Only about 100 individuals survive, confined to Sumatra (Indonesia). Photograph: AP Photo/WWF Malaysia, Stephen Hogg, HO Photograph: AP
Last month it was confirmed that the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is extinct in Malaysia. The future looks bleak for this species. The few dozen remaining individuals are confined to remote forests in Sumatra (Indonesia), in refuges that are under siege on an island devastated by rampant deforestation.
Rhinos are under threat worldwide. The estimated population of the Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus), just 60 individuals, is even lower than that of the Sumatran rhino. In 2011 the West African black rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) was declared extinct. The global population of another African sub-species, the northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), now consists of four individuals, all in zoos, none of them in breeding condition.
I find it shocking that the collapse of rhino populations has happened in my lifetime. When I was young, there were parts of Kenya where it was dangerous to walk because you might be attacked by rhinos. Now they are so rare that we can give them all names.
How could this have happened? Each individual extinction has its own story, but the underlying reason is that we, humans, have let it happen. Wildlife extinction is a consequence of policy failure.
In the face of failed policies to conserve the natural habitats that harbour wildlife, some still hope that human ingenuity can save their inhabitants from extinction. The results so far are not encouraging. Here is a list of four ‘bad ideas’ to save rhinos:
Bad idea 1: Captive breeding of animals that won’t breed in captivity
In the 1980s, in response to the threatened extinction of the Sumatran rhino, conservationists took the decision to initiate a captive breeding programme. Despite the lack of any evidence that the species could be bred successfully in captivity, 40 animals—a significant proportion of the entire wild population—were captured and moved to zoos and reserves. Not a single baby rhino was born and, by the end of the century, almost all the captured animals had died of disease.
Evidence suggests population management can aid recovery of threatened rhino species, but only if it is combined with intensive protection of natural breeding habitats—something that is not happening in Southeast Asia.
The recovery of the southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) in southern Africa from a handful of individuals at the end of the 19th century to the current population of more than 20,000 is one of wildlife conservation’s great success stories. This was achieved by strictly protecting rhinos on reserves and moving surplus populations to other suitable sites.
In the 1980’s Kenya took a radical decision to take all wild rhinos out of the wild and keep them in heavily fenced sanctuaries. Wildlife authorities invested heavily in military protection and intelligence, and scientifically managed the population densities and genetics to maximise breeding.
The programme has been a success. Kenya’s rhinos which had declined to fewer than 400 now number over 1,000, including 80% of the world population of the eastern black rhino (Dicerus bicornis michaeli). Some black rhinos have been released back to secret places in the wild, where they are apparently doing very well.
Bad idea 2: Test-tube rhino babies
Sadly it is too late to use this approach to save the northern white rhino. The species is functionally extinct, with just a handful of ageing individuals left in zoos. Scientists are now fantasizing about high-tech solutions to ‘save’ the species using Jurassic Park style cloning techniques. In my view this would be a scandalous waste of money that would be better spent on genuine conservation initiatives.
There is no chance that scientists could recreate the genetic variation necessary to sustain a viable wild population. If, against all the odds, an animal created in this way survived, it would be condemned to life as a freak show spectacle.
Keeper Mohamed Doyo leans over to pat female northern white rhino Najin in her pen at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on 1 December 2014. At the time the photo was taken Najin was one of six northern white rhinos left on earth. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP
Bad idea 3: Legalise trade in ‘farmed’ rhino horns
Alongside habitat destruction, poaching is the principal cause of declining rhino populations. As a ‘medicinal’ product, ground rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold; despite research showing that, at most, it has mild fever reducing properties, and is certainly less effective than aspirin.
Policies to control poaching by prohibiting trade in rhino horn have been ineffective in the face of astronomical prices fuelled by booming demand from Southeast Asia. A group of economists has suggested an alternative approach. They propose flooding the market with ‘legal’ rhino horn, thereby reducing the price and the incentive for poaching. The idea is claimed to be ‘sustainable’ because a rhino horn will regrow after it has been ‘harvested’.
These proposals centre on the southern white rhino. Many of the continent’s more than 20,000 animals are held on private game reserves in South Africa, whose owners stand to make millions if the law is changed to allow them to sell their stocks of rhino horn.
Economists in favour or legalising the trade put forward sophisticated arguments. However, it cannot be ignored that most of them have close links to the private landowners who stand to gain from their proposals.
I am all in favour of people making money from wildlife in ways that are compatible with the maintenance of truly wild populations. However, rhinos on ‘rhino farms’ bear very little resemblance, behaviourally, to wild animals, as this eye-witness report observes:
Packed into 1,000 acre ‘fields’ as many as 80 rhinos, weighing around 4,000 lbs each, mix together surrounded by seven-foot-tall electric fences. … Rhino in the wild … are not herd animals [but] on the farm you have 40 or 50 rhinos grouped together. … The farm hand brought out the feed and they all came running up … they behaved just like cows and it was like being in a field full of cows.
Breeding massive numbers of domesticated white rhinos would inevitably lead to the evolution of genetic traits that made animals unsuitable for life in the wild. From a conservation perspective, the domestication of white rhinos on ‘rhino farms’ could, in the long term, lead to the extinction of the wild species as surely as the poachers’ guns.
From a human perspective rhino farming seems morally dubious, to say the least. Rhino horn is sold at vast expense to desperate people as a cure for serious diseases such as cancer. But proponents of legalising the trade do not seem to worry that they would be making money from the sale of a fraudulent product.
Most importantly, the economic theories used to justify this proposal untested. The distinguished Mexican economist Alejandro Nadal has warned that there is a ‘veil of ignorance’ surrounding such policies. It is possible, he warns, that Asian demand for rhino horn, and other products could be a “runaway market” and that a legalisation of trade “will accelerate the demise of wildlife”.
Perversely, an article in favour of legalising the trade published in the journal Science suggests that:
An increase in demand for horn once it is legalised would imply a success of the market. This demand could be met by an increase of the supply through a growing rhino population.
Clearly this is a money-making scheme dressed up as a conservation initiative.
Bad idea 4: Rhino in a bottle
The same can be said of the even more immoral project of the American biotech company Pembient to manufacture and sell ‘fake’ rhino horn. Pembient has sequenced DNA from rhino horn to create a synthetic version that’s identical to the real thing. A video on YouTube, advertises their rhino horn cosmetic cream “Essence of Rhino” in Vietnamese .
The company could have used the advert as an opportunity to raise awareness in Asia of the horrific consequences of rhino poaching. It does not, merely noting that the product is “superior to the wild rhino horn being illegally circulated”. The advert begins:
What is the secret of beauty? … For thousands of years our ancestors trusted rhino horn for its strength and power. But since that time the world has become polluted and so has rhino horn. We can’t trust where it comes from or what it does to our bodies.
Produced in “the pristine regions of the Pacific Northwest of America”, Essence of Rhino is claimed to be a “pure, safe, harmonious and cruelty-free product”. A particularly disturbing feature of the advert is that, while the spoken text is about trust and purity, the imagery and product packaging seems designed to evoke the myth of rhino horn’s aphrodisiac effects. This loony scheme would be funny if it wasn’t so potentially dangerous.
“Essence of Rhino” is a cosmetic cream produced from synthetic rhino horn. The image is from a video produced to market the product in Vietnam. Photograph: Courtesy of Pembient/YouTube
The most likely effect of the creation of a legal market in rhino horn, whether ‘farmed’ or ‘synthetic’, will be provide cover for laundering illegal, poached rhino horn. This was the lesson of the disastrous experiment in legalising the sale of ivory stocks in 2008, which was followed by an explosion of prices and a massive increase in elephant poaching.
So how can rhinos be saved?
Conservationists need to ask themselves why the impending loss of some of the world’s most ancient surviving species of mammal has attracted so little attention among the 7 billion humans on the planet.
This is in stark contrast to the worldwide interest in the fate of individual animals. I did an internet search for ‘Sumatran rhino extinction’ and got a total of 187,000 hits, including 6,000 news items. This was 300 times less than for ‘Cecil the lion’, who got 60 million hits and almost 5 million news items!
Clearly the dramatic death of charismatic Cecil was a news package that people could relate to, almost as if Cecil was a pet, not a wild animal. The lingering decline of shy animals hidden deep in the jungle is much harder for people to comprehend.
I have often argued that some species, notably elephants, possess qualities that—rightly—make them especially dear to humans. But wildlife conservation should concern itself with the future of all species—and not only those that humans consider useful or find endearing.
Essentially conservation is about limiting the selfishness of our own species. It is about taking a decision to share the planet with other, non-human species. Crucially, it involves setting aside areas where the interests of non-human species come before those of humans.
This is not an easy message to sell, especially in Africa where human poverty is rife. It raises awkward questions about taboo issues such as human population growth, and how western lifestyles (for example through the consumption of biofuels, soya products and palm oil) contribute to the destruction of natural habitats in far-away countries.
Increasingly, ‘environmental’ discourse seems to be all about ways of avoiding these questions. Current debates on global warming focus almost exclusively on using technological solutions to make the planet a better place for humans.
A White Rhino drinking at a water hole with her small calf in Imfolozi Game Reserve (South Africa), June 2014. Rhinos need extensive natural habitat in order breed successfully. Photograph: Jeffrey Barbee for the Guardian
But there are no short cuts or miracle cures to the threat of species extinction. The only solution is to preserve and protect the natural habitat that allows wild species to be truly “wild”. In the context of climate change, the conservation of interconnected habitats will be critical to allow species to move and adapt.
This will require political will, straight talking by conservationists to gain public support, and an iron determination to enforce anti-poaching and anti-trafficking laws.