Moos’ Blog

Bio­di­ver­sity Counts!
Obser­va­tions and opin­ions con­cern­ing zoos, evo­lu­tion, nature con­ser­va­tion and the way we treat/​support the ecosys­tems which are sup­posed to serve us.


Ship­ping African rhi­nos to Aus­tralia for sur­vival is not enough

pub­lished 08 March 2014 | mod­i­fied 18 Decem­ber 2016

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?

Black rhino poached RRCAs 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.

The plan is to import a suf­fi­cient num­ber of black rhino and white rhi­nos into Aus­tralia from South Africa to form a sub­stan­tial breed­ing herd which will assist in secur­ing the future of the species
Ray Dearlove , founder of The Aus­tralian Rhino Project »

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.

(Source: Guardian envi­ron­ment, 03.03.2014; Wildlife Ranch­ing South Africa info sheet; Wikipedia; IUCN Red List; Taronga Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety Aus­tralia; YouTube)

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