In an ultimate effort to protect the endangered rhinoceroses of South Africa a project was launched in December 2013 to establish an insurance population of these large and magnificent pachyderms in Australia. But will this 'safe house' prevent the rhinos from going extinct?
As everybody could be well aware of, the major threat to African rhino species (black as well as white) is poaching. In South Africa there's nowhere the rhino is safe from being poached, an illegal and economically driven activity to collect the horns of these animals. Rhino horn nowadays is pure gold, because in Asian countries – such as Vietnam and China – there's an increasing demand for this animal product that is valued for its non-existent hidden powers. Rhino horn is now worth about US$ 20,000 a kilogramme. Any liquid or powder that contains rhino horn, which by the way only consist of keratin just like human nails, will turn into a magic potion that cures fever, convulsion, lack of libido, or any ailment that you can think of. All those affluent 'sick' people in Asia will pay an enormous amount of money to get cured. So when you want to make some easy money, why not kill a rhino that is roaming around freely in African nature.
In 2012, 668 rhinos were illegally killed, while in 2013 a record 1,004 rhinos were killed for their horn in South Africa. And the situation in South Africa further deteriorated with already approximately 70 rhinos killed at the beginning of this year (one every 8 hours!), with the poaching extended into private game reserves. Most of this poaching takes place in the Kruger National Park. South African officials have unofficially conceded that they are losing the battle and have started to move rhinos to 'safe' areas within South Africa (SA). In the latest “State of the Rhino” the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) reported that rhinos are fast approaching a tipping point, with poaching deaths nearly outnumbering births after two decades of population recovery.
BBC News – Rhino ranger on the battle against poachers:
(Source: todaynewscnn YouTube channel)
Western black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes) has been declared Extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2011, while the other subspecies of the black rhino are considered Critically Endangered according the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. With the white rhinos classified as Near Threatened, it is an absolutely perfect idea to create a true insurance population of rhinos as the threats to rhinos increase. Though it seems a little odd to do so in Australia – where no native population of rhinos has ever existed, it makes sense considering the climatic condition and habitat, which in certain places is similar to South African conditions.
So the ultimate goal of this 'crazy' Australian Rhino Project to ensure the survival of the majestic rhinoceroses could be feasible. It is a back-up plan, for when things go really wrong and the rhinos go extinct in South Africa. Then there will be a population of rhinos from which individuals can return to the wild in SA when the situation permits a viable population in the wild. The specimens from SA that are going to be transported to Australia, will be kept in fenced-off areas and in human care. At Taronga Western Plains Zoo, the Taronga Conservation Society Australia will build on its existing rhino population and experience to try and make this a success.
It is the classical ex-situ conservation challenge which Taronga Zoo has to address when trying to breed and keep a viable population of rhinos under manmade conditions. Will they be able to avoid inbreeding and keep the population genetically diverse; will they be able to raise the animals without too much human care to enable smooth return to the wild; will they be able to keep the animals healthy; and can they prevent poaching of rhinos in Australia? They have experience with those issues of course, because Taronga Conservation Society Australia is involved in several global breeding programmes for species such as black rhino, Asian elephant, Sumatran tiger and snow leopard. The possibility of poaching is something different and has been considered as well. They say that poaching of rhinos is a possibility in Australia, but they also believe that the risks are dramatically lower than anywhere in Africa.
And then there is the in-situ challenge, will they be able to sustain the ecosystem to which the rhinos can return in the wild of South Africa? A recent study has shown that rhinoceroses are important ecosystem engineers and maintain the diverse African grasslands on which countless other species depend. This means that African landscapes may become very different places if rhinos aren’t there to diversify plant life and create prime grazing spots for other animals. So, what will happen when the rhinos will go extinct in SA due to poaching? Will the ecosystem change that much that after several years it will not be able to sustain rhinos anymore? And from Australian perspective this means that rhinos cannot be released in the wild in Australia, because they are exotic and invasive to the local ecosystems and will destroy their balance.
The project that was launched last December after a feasibility study had been completed, is already on the right track:
Nevertheless three main challenges remain to make The Australian Rhino Project a reality:
gaining the approval of the Australian authorities to import the rhinos directly into Australia;
gaining the approval of the South African authorities to provide a suitable number of rhinos which will ensure the success of the Project;
raising sufficient funds to make this all happen.
I welcome the daring initiative taken by the Australian Rhino Project which seems to be an inevitable necessity for rhinos survival. At the same time I really think more attention should be paid to anti-poaching activities as well. The causes that lead to rhino extinction need to be addressed, and poaching is the most important one. When the drivers for poaching still exist, we will never be able to return rhinos to their native habitat. And when the ecosystems in the native habitat have changed during the rhinos absence, than it may well be that Africa cannot sustain rhinos any longer.
I call on all individuals and governments to donate to The Australian Rhino Project to make this happen.