Africa’s black (Diceros bicornis) and white (Ceratotherium simum) rhino populations are being decimated by poachers. The IUCN reported 1 338 rhinos killed illegally across Africa in 2015, with 5 940 killed since 2008. There are now between 19 682 – 21 077 white rhino in Africa, and between 5 042 – 5 455 black rhino, according to the IUCN. The white rhino total populations has ‘levelled off’, which means that while there is no apparent decline, if not harvested illegally the population would be growing given how much suitable habitat there is in African protected areas for rhino. The black rhino population has increased slightly (since 2012), but the rate of growth is well below the natural 5% per annum.
Of course, the rhino meta-population and extent of illegal harvest is not spatially homogeneous. South Africa hosts 79% of Africa’s rhino, and has incurred most of the poaching in recent years (85% of all illegal harvest). That is because most of the rhino populations that occurred naturally north of the Limpopo have been wiped out. According to the WWF, approx. 96% of black rhinos were killed illegally between 1970 and 1992. So the organised criminals have moved down South. Thus the poaching crisis in Kruger National Park. The only animals left in countries like Zimbabwe and Botswana are in intensive protection zones, usually on private land, where game scouts are well armed and well trained.
Personally, I don’t think the poachers will wipe out rhino altogether in Africa, but for as long as the Asian demand for horn lasts, so the killing will continue. There are just too many impoverished people in Africa that are prepared to take the risks, and corruption is too endemic.
So what do we do? One option is to loan some animals to a relatively safe country, say a wealthy country with a climate similar to tropical Africa – like Australia.
The principal cause of native species extinction and decline in Australia is the introduction of what the Australians term ‘ferals’ and ‘weeds’. Feral cats in particular. But there is a paradoxical conservation success story in Australia that few know about, the Bali cattle, or Banteng (Bos javanicus). Endangered in their native range, ~20 banteng were introduced to North Australia in 1849. There are now ~6 000 of banteng in Arnhem Land, and Australia is obliged to conserve them. In fact a paper published in 2005 by my PhD supervisors called on Australian authorities to consider ‘deliberate, managed introductions of other endangered exotics …’. Some ridiculed this, but I remember thinking then that the time will come when African rhino would be sent to Australia. And now it has come.
The Australian Rhino Project will send 80 rhino to Australia over the next four years. One day those rhino can go back to Africa, but that time will only come when the demand for horn from Asia ends. There will be ecological consequences, but many pastoral properties in the north of Australia support introduced African grasses, so let the rhino use those. And let scientists estimate the impact that rhinos have on local species diversity.
The rhino poaching crisis in Africa will not go away anytime soon, and so radical measures are required; such as sending some animals to Australia for safekeeping.