Protecting the world’s remaining rhinos: finding hope in adversity

By Margaret Kinnaird, Wildlife Practice Lead, WWF International

© WWF-Indonesia / Gert Polet

Today is World Rhino Day, dedicated to these impressive prehistoric animals that once roamed in great numbers across the Asian and African continents. For some, the rhino is a creature that captures the imagination, with its armour-like skin and horn. For others, it is a symbol of strength and resilience, a favourite emblem for sports teams. Many dream of seeing a wild rhino, while others make it their lives work to protect them.

Although the large African rhino is probably the most iconic, I have spent much of my time in efforts to save the smallest, hairiest and perhaps the most chatty of these magnificent creatures, the Sumatran rhino. In the early part of my career I worked in the island of Sumatra for seven years conducting wildlife research and training at the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, where a few individuals still exist. Although like many other rhino conservationists, I never had the opportunity to see one in the wild, there are numerous camera trap sightings of the Sumatran rhino, which is the oldest of its species.

But for all of the incredible strength and awe of the entire rhino family, for far too many still, it’s value is relegated to its horn which remains a product for consumption.

Poaching, driven by the demand for rhino horn, has plagued rhino populations and continues to do so; an average of three rhinos are poached every day across Africa. In addition, unsustainable development has shredded their habitats, leaving populations — especially in Asia — isolated and unable to find mates.

Today, the Javan and Sumatran rhino are on the very edge of extinction and earlier this year we mourned the death of the last male Northern white rhino, declaring the subspecies functionally extinct.

And, in our efforts to protect the planet’s most threatened species, it’s not just rhinos that we grieve. Poaching has a high human cost as well. Between July 2017 and 2018, 107 rangers lost their lives in the line of duty, according to the International Ranger Federation — that’s two people every week on average. Almost half were murdered at their place of work, whilst protecting wildlife. These rangers are often the ‘breadwinners’ for their families and many are not insured, meaning their families not only have to cope with the death of a loved one, they have to find a new way to survive.

Quite literally a matter of life and death, the situation for those trying to protect wildlife including rhinos must improve.

Demand is yet to slow for illegal wildlife products such as rhino horn; criminal syndicates orchestrating poaching and trafficking are becoming ever more organized and violent, and continued unsustainable development is shrinking and fragmenting habitats.

The criminal syndicates responsible for the poaching crisis operate on a transnational scale, so why should our responses still be limited by borders? The entire chain of countries affected by wildlife trafficking must recognize this as a serious, sophisticated crime that needs similarly serious penalties, and enforcement of those penalties; from those that see the blood shed from poached rhinos and murdered rangers, to those implicated in the trafficking routes, to the demand countries like Vietnam and China; all must act for the rhino. Next month all eyes will be on London’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, where countries have an unprecedented opportunity to show their commitment to action to see an end to this grave crime.

To tackle the major problems and challenges we face, we must stop working within the silos of our own borders. As we work toward a common goal of saving rhino species, countries can learn from each other and share best practices.

Indeed, despite this seemingly dire situation, I honestly believe there is still hope.

In recent years we’ve seen an unprecedented success in saving the Greater One Horned Rhino found in India and Nepal. Pushed to the brink with fewer than 200 left in the wild at the end of the 20th century due to poaching, today there are more than 3,500 individuals roaming these lands once again thanks to a united effort by governments, local communities and NGOs.

It is a success we must learn from, especially as we launch with partners this week the first-of-its kind alliance, Sumatran Rhino Rescue, which hopes to save the critically endangered species. Fewer than 80 individuals remain in the wild. Five leading organizations working with the government in the first united approach in Indonesian rhino conservation, giving the species its best, and probably only, chance of a future.

We must remember, each win in rhino conservation is critical, but the battle is great. We’re living in a time when bold actions are necessary to tackle the ever deepening threats faced by endangered wildlife, and yet with this bolder action comes greater risk. Recently, eleven rhinos died following a translocation to Tsavo East National Park by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS); an unprecedented incident that left all involved and the wider conservation community heart-broken. This also acts as a tragic reminder of the intense pressure both people and animals face in attempts to grow populations and expand rhino ranges.

This year on World Rhino Day if I can hope for one thing, it would be for us to break border-bound silos. We must do better at learning from the mistakes of the past, supporting innovations in the future and most importantly, remaining committed to action today. The future of wildlife rangers, the rhino and many other species depends on it.