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Protecting Africa's Last Rhino Populations from Poaching
by Janine Van Norman
Photo Credit: Karl Stromayer, USFWS
The rhinoceros is an iconic species that once roamed widely from the vast plains and savannahs of Africa to the forested jungles of Asia. Once abundant, rhino numbers have dwindled to less than a hundred in some cases, due mostly to the illegal trade in rhino horn. Though many countries work diligently to protect their rhinos, a recent surge in poaching of these animals for the illegal horn trade prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to list the southern white rhino – the last unprotected rhino – as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in October 2013, due to its similar appearance to its highly endangered cousins.
There are only five rhinoceros species remaining worldwide, and they are categorized into two general groups: Asian rhinos, which include the Javan (Rhinoceros sondaicus), Sumatran (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), and the Indian (Rhinoceros unicornis) rhino; and African rhinos, which include the black (Diceros bicornis) and white rhino. The white rhinoceros is divided into two subspecies: the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) and the southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum ssp. simum).
Prior to 1900, Africa was home to hundreds of thousands of black and white rhinos. These animals were once so numerous that they were regarded as agricultural pests, and governments commissioned hunters to eradicate them from agricultural areas. During the second half of the 20th Century, international demand for rhino horn led to uncontrolled hunting of rhinos, causing their populations to plummet. In Yemen, rhino horn is used for ceremonial dagger handles, and in China rhino horn is believed to have mild fever reduction qualities in traditional medicines.
Recently however, the market for rhino horn has shifted to Vietnam, where it is reportedly desired for unproven medicinal purposes, and the price on the illegal market has skyrocketed to meet this new demand. This increase in demand has led to a dramatic increase in rhino poaching, and subsequently two subspecies have been hunted to extinction in the wild within the past ten years—the western black (Diceros bicornis longipes), which was declared extinct in June 2013, and the northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), last seen in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008.
Photo Credit: Karl Stromayer, USFWS
All five species of rhinoceros are included in Appendix I of the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES), considered threatened with extinction. Under this status, international trade is permitted only under exceptional circumstances, which generally precludes commercial trade. Subsequently, the South African and Swaziland populations of the southern white rhino – countries who have worked successfully to protect and increase their rhino populations – were transferred to Appendix II, allowing international trade in hunting trophies and live animals to appropriate and acceptable destinations.
The efforts of South Africa, where 93 percent of all southern white rhinos exist, brought the species back from the brink of extinction from 20 animals in 1895 to the current population of 20,405 animals. While, the southern white rhino is not as close to extinction as its four cousins, with about 20,000 remaining in protected areas and private game reserves, South Africa currently faces a poaching epidemic and has put restrictions in place to curb individuals from rhino horn-consuming nations from hunting southern white rhino and exporting them for commercial purposes.
Part of South Africa's conservation plan relies on revenue generated by trophy hunters who travel to Africa to hunt rhinos as part of South Africa's scientifically-based hunting program. The revenue generated from hunters supports game guards, fencing, security personnel, drivers, weapons, and equipment to locate and stop rhino poachers in national parks and on private lands.
Because the Service recognizes the role that these hunting programs can play in conservation, the Similarity of Appearance provision for southern white rhino does not prohibit U.S. hunters from lawfully hunting the sub species. Conservation comes in many forms, and every available conservation resource must be used to stem the loss of rhinos in order to provide clear benefits for the long-term survival of this iconic species. The Endangered Species Act is helping to do just that.
Janine Van Norman, chief of the Ecological Services Program's Branch of Foreign Species, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-358-2370.
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