The International Rhino Foundation (IRF) yesterday released the 2019 State of the Rhino Report which details the impacts on the conservation of the world’s last five species of rhinos.
Remarkable recoveries have been seen over the past ten years for several species, including the black rhino in Africa and the greater one-horned rhino in India and Nepal. Poaching remains the largest threat and for more than two years has led to the decrease of white rhinos and Sumatran rhinos.
One decade ago, fewer than 21,000 rhinos roamed the Earth. Today, rhino numbers hover around 27,300, a 30% increase over the past 10 years. But, in the shorter term, over the past 2 years, the global rhino population has seen a steady decline, dropping from 29,000 in 2017 to 27,300 today.
Rhino populations have reached a tipping point as births no longer are keeping up with poaching losses.
“Two of the world’s five rhino species could be lost in our lifetime,” said Susie Ellis, Executive Director of IRF in a statement sent to WAN. “Rhinos across the globe are threatened by rampant poaching to feed illegal markets, by habitat loss, and by other factors ranging from inbreeding to invasive species.”
In Africa, criminals killed nearly 900 rhinos last year. While this is a decrease from 3.7 rhinos lost per day in 2015, 2018 still saw 2.4 rhinos killed per day – or one rhino every 10 hours.
White rhinos, which number only 18,000 today, have been most heavily impacted by poaching over the past two years. The species is especially susceptible to poaching largely because they generally live in more open habitats where they are easier targets.
Africa’s other rhino species, the black rhino, is slowly coming back from horrendous losses. By 1993, fewer than 2,300 rhinos remained from populations numbering more than 65,000 in the 1970’s. Today, black rhino numbers hover around 5,500 remaining in the wild.
“The declines would have been far larger if not for the enormous protection efforts by governments and conservationists in Africa,” continued Ellis.
Strict protection by government authorities in India and Nepal, has resulted in remarkable conservation successes for the greater one-horned, or Indian rhino, which has rebounded from fewer than 100 individuals to more than 3,600 today.
Beginning in 2009, IRF and its Indian Rhino Vision 2020 partners worked together to establish a new Indian rhino population in Assam’s Manas National Park. 18 rhinos have been born in the park, and there have been two births so far in 2019, which brings the population to 36 animals.
“These efforts demonstrate that rhinos can recover on their own if they are given adequate space and are free from the outside pressures of poaching and habitat loss,” stated Ellis.
In Indonesia, fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos remain. The species is likely now the most endangered large mammal on Earth, with declines of more than 70% in the past 20 years.
Three small, isolated populations exist on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, plus a tiny handful of animals in Indonesian Borneo. Remaining populations are heavily guarded by anti-poaching units, but despite protection, numbers continue to decline.
In 2017, the Government of Indonesia developed a Sumatran Rhino Emergency Action Plan. In 2018, IRF and partners formed the Sumatran Rhino Rescue Project, with plans to rescue rhinos and bring those with reproductive potential into large, semi-natural breeding and research facilities like the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary to increase population numbers.
Javan rhinos, with no more than 68 remaining, are found only in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park, where they are heavily protected. There has been no poaching in Ujung Kulon in more than 25 years.
The Eighteenth Conference of the Parties, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species:
In August, representatives from nearly every country in the world met in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss trade issues pertaining not only to charismatic species like rhinos and elephants, but also species ranging from otters to sturgeons to coral to a variety of plants.
Three rhino proposals were brought forth to the parties:
By Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), to allow the country unrestricted international commercial trade in its specimens of white rhino, their horn and products. The Parties rejected the proposal 202-25, with seven abstentions.
By Namibia, to allow the country to conduct live trade in southern white rhinos to “appropriate” destinations. The proposal was rejected 82-29.
And, by South Africa, to allow it to change its trophy hunting system for black rhinos, requesting the hunting quota be increased from five adult males to a total number of adult males not exceeding 0.5% of its total black rhino population. The Parties sadly approved the proposal, with amendments.
Assisted Reproductive Technology
Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) as part of the conservation activities for rhinos has been a trending topic in 2019. In September of this year, European scientists recovered eggs from the last (non-reproductive) northern white rhino females, and successfully fertilized them with frozen-thawed sperm from two deceased northern white rhino bulls. Two of the eggs grew to early stage embryos and have been frozen to be later implanted into a southern white rhino surrogate. This was followed by the recovery of one egg from the last Sumatran rhino in Sabah, Malaysia, which hopefully can be matured and frozen.
In July, scientists in the U.S., produced a southern white rhino calf using frozen semen and artificial insemination (AI). In May, another group of U.S. scientists hormonally induced ovulation in a greater one-horned rhino and used AI to produce a calf.
“We follow and applaud these developments with great interest, while also noting the importance of keeping these accomplishments in perspective, particularly for a subspecies that is functionally extinct, such as the northern white rhino,” said Ellis. “No species has ever been saved using ART along and attempting to use ART to try to ‘bring back’ any subspecies or species is a complex, highly difficult endeavor. These are but the first steps on a long, long journey. “
The report outlines the following four priorities for all five species of rhinos:
Bolstering anti-poaching activities or “boots on the ground”
Maintaining intensive monitoring and active management of wild populations, complimented by captive breeding as needed
Working with local communities to ensure they receive economic incentives for participating in successful conservation programs
Governments must commit to enforcing their wildlife crime laws and commitments to international treaties to foster more effective international collaboration on investigations to address the entire criminal supply chain, particularly in Asia