Rise in rhino numbers offers wildlife hope

Natural armour: A rhino’s skin can be up to two inches thick, but is still susceptible to sunburn. © Paul Hilton/HSI

Is conservation working? A survey of rhinoceroses in Nepal shows that a population once close to extinction is now on the rise. But many species remain high on the danger list.

Making an official count of Nepalese rhinos was fraught with difficulty. Roads in the 367 square miles of Chitwan National Park – where 90% of them live – are rare, and the forests are so deep that the counters had to ride through them on elephants. Several of the team were injured when a rogue elephant charged their animals. In another sanctuary, one of the counters was killed by a tiger.

The results of the census, however, were hugely encouraging for lovers of pachyderms. In the 20th Century, the greater one-horned rhino almost disappeared from the few countries where it lives: at one point its numbers dwindled to around 200. But since 2015, the number in Nepal has risen by 107, from 645 to 752. With the population in India also increasing, there are now about 3,700 altogether. The revival of the species is seen as one of Asia’s greatest conservation success stories.

This is not the only good news in the conservation world. A recent survey by scientists from Newcastle University and Birdlife International found that as many as 48 bird and mammal species had been saved from extinction since the UN Convention on Biological Diversity came into force in 1993.

They include Przewalski’s horses, of which none were left in the wild in 1960. Today around 750 of them roam the steppes of Mongolia.

In the Caribbean, the Puerto Rican amazon – a small parrot – is thriving again after its wild population dropped to just 13. The California condor, the Iberian lynx and the pygmy hog are three other species that have been saved, thanks to legal protection, zoo-based conservation and reintroduction programmes.

According to Dr Stuart Butchart, who led the survey, it raises hope for other species and shows that conservation is “achievable and essential to sustain a healthy planet”.

But there is still plenty to worry about. Since 1993, 15 bird and mammal species have become extinct, or are strongly suspected to have done so. Others, such as the Chinese sturgeon and the vaquita, remain critically endangered.

A report last September by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) estimated that global wildlife populations had plunged by 68% between 1970 and 2016. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the average fall was a horrifying 94%.

“All the indicators of biodiversity loss are heading the wrong way rapidly,” said the WWF’s Mike Barrett. “As a start, there has got to be regulation to get deforestation out of our supply chain.”

Nevertheless, the report notes that numbers for species such as the Nepalese tiger and the blacktail reef shark in Australia are on the up. “Whilst we are giving a very depressing statistic, all hope is not lost,” says the ZSL’s Louise McRae. “We can actually help populations recover.”

Is conservation working?

Beast increase?

Some say, yes: the rhinos in India and Nepal are an obvious success story. Conservationists face huge challenges, but have shown great ingenuity and courage in facing them – and proved that a species can be brought back from the brink of extinction. Experts estimate that extinction rates would be at least three times higher without the action taken since 1993.

Others argue that saving a few dozen species is of little significance when you consider the many that remain in danger. Though some organisations are doing wonderful work, we all need to take responsibility if this terrible pattern is not to continue. Changing our lifestyles and reducing demand for intensive agriculture is the first step.

You Decide

  1. Suppose you were in charge of a conservation organisation. How would you choose which species to prioritise?
  2. Does the conservation work done by zoos justify the keeping of animals in captivity?

Activities

  1. Probably the most famous picture of a rhinoceros is a 16th-Century woodcut by Albrecht Dürer. Study it and then draw or paint a copy of it.
  2. Read Rudyard Kipling’s story, How the Rhino Got His Skin. Write a story in a similar style about how a different animal acquired its appearance.

Some People Say...

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”

Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882), British naturalist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that poaching is one of the biggest threats to rhinos. A huge number have been killed for their horns, which fetch high prices for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine – even though no health benefits have been proved – and as a status symbol. Chitwan National Park lost hundreds of rhinos during Nepal’s civil war, when the security forces were too busy fighting Maoist rebels to protect them. But since its end in 2006, hundreds of soldiers have been deployed to combat the threat.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around what else we can do to help wildlife. Measures recommended by the WWF include putting pressure on governments to maintain and expand nature reserves, reverse deforestation and protect water sources from overuse and pollution. It also emphasises working with local communities so that conservation increases their opportunities to earn a living. And it encourages everybody to make sure that the food they eat comes from sustainable sources.

Word Watch

Pachyderms
Animals of a kind which also includes elephants. The term comes from two Greek words meaning “thick” and “skin”.
Greater one-horned rhino
The largest of the rhino species. Its horn can grow up to 25 inches long.
Przewalski’s horses
Shorter than domesticated horses, they have particularly thick hooves which are ideal for rough terrain, and live in troops of up to 15.
Steppes
Grasslands without trees except those near rivers and lakes. The Eurasian Steppe stretches for 5,000 miles between Hungary and Manchuria.
California condor
A vulture with a wingspan of up to 10 ft. It became extinct in the wild in 1987, but has now been reintroduced in California, Utah and Arizona.
Iberian lynx
A wildcat found in Spain and Portugal. There were just 94 left in 2000, but the population has now increased to more than 800.
Pygmy hog
A wild pig about eight inches high. It survives in the Indian region of Assam, and possibly also in Bhutan.
Chinese sturgeon
A fish which can grow as long as 16ft. The Chinese government has named it a “national treasure” and is working to restock the Yangtze River.
Vaquita
A porpoise found in the Gulf of Mexico, and threatened by illegal fishing.
Blacktail reef shark
Also known as grey reef sharks, they can dive to a depth of 1,000m.

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