Rhinos are one of the most iconic symbols of the African savanna: grey behemoths with armour plating and fearsome horns. And yet it is the horns that are leading to their demise. Poaching is so prolific that zoos cannot even protect them.
Some people believe rhino horns can cure several ailments; others see horns as status symbols. Given horns are made of keratin, this is really about as effective as chewing your finger nails. Nonetheless, a massive increase in poaching over the past decade has led to rapid declines in some rhino species, and solutions are urgently needed.
One proposal is to take 80 rhinos from private game farms in South Africa and transport them to captive facilities in Australia, at a cost of over US$4m. Though it cannot be denied that this is a “novel” idea, I, and colleagues from around the world, have serious concerns about the project, and we have now published a paper looking into the problematic plan.
The first issue is whether the cost of moving the rhinos is unjustified. The $4m cost is almost double the anti-poaching budget for South African National Parks ($2.2m), the managers of the estate where most white rhinos currently reside in the country.
The money would be better spent on anti-poaching activities in South Africa to increase local capacity. Or, from an Australian perspective, given the country’s abysmal record of mammal extinctions, it could go towards protecting indigenous species there.
In addition, there is the time cost of using the expertise of business leaders, marketeers and scientists. All could be working on conservation issues of much greater importance.
Bringing animals from the wild into captivity introduces strong selective pressure for domestication. Essentially, those animals that are too wild don’t breed and so don’t pass on their genes, while the sedate (unwild) animals do. This is exacerbated for species like rhinos where predation has shaped their evolution: they have grown big, dangerous horns to protect themselves. So captivity will likely be detrimental to the survival of any captive bred offspring should they be returned to the wild.
It is not known yet which rhino species will be the focus of the Australian project, but it will probably be the southern white rhino subspecies – which is the rhino species least likely to go extinct. The global population estimate for southern white rhinos (over 20,000) is stable, despite high poaching levels.
This number stands in stark contrast to the number of northern white (three), black (4,880 and increasing), great Indian (2,575), Sumatran (275) and Javan (up to 66) rhinos. These latter three species are clearly of much greater conservation concern than southern white rhinos.
There are also well over 800 southern white rhinos currently held in zoos around the world.
With appropriate management, the population size of the southern white is unlikely to lose genetic diversity, so adding 80 more individuals to zoos is utterly unnecessary. By contrast, across the world there are 39 other large mammalian herbivore species that are threatened with extinction that are far more in need of conservation funding than the five rhino species.
Rhinos inhabit places occupied by other less high profile threatened species – like African wild dogs and pangolins – which do not benefit from the same level of conservation funding. Conserving wildlife in their natural habitat has many benefits for the creatures and plants they coexist with. Rhinos are keystone species, creating grazing lawns that provide habitats for other species and ultimately affect fire regimes (fire frequency and burn patterns). They are also habitats themselves for a range of species-specific parasites. Abandoning efforts to conserve rhinos in their environment means these ecosystem services will no longer be provided.
Finally, taking biodiversity assets (rhinos) from Africa and transporting them to foreign countries extends the history of exploitation of Africa’s resources. Although well-meaning, the safe-keeping of rhinos by Western countries is as disempowering and patronising as the historical appropriation of cultural artefacts by colonial powers.
Conservation projects are ultimately more successful when led locally. With its strong social foundation, community-based conservation has had a significant impact on rhino protection and population recovery in Africa. In fact, local capacity and institutions are at the centre of one of the world’s most successful conservation success stories – the southern white rhino was brought back from the brink, growing from a few hundred in South Africa at the turn of the last century to over 20,000 throughout southern Africa today.
In our opinion, this project is neo-colonial conservation that diverts money and public attention away from the fundamental issues necessary to conserve rhinos. There is no evidence of what will happen to the rhinos transported to Australia once the poaching crisis is averted, but there seems nothing as robust as China’s “panda diplomacy” where pandas provided to foreign zoos remain the property of China, alongside a substantial annual payment, as do any offspring produced, for the duration of the arrangement.
With increased support, community-based rhino conservation initiatives can continue to lead the way. It is money that is missing, not the will to conserve them nor the expertise necessary to do so. Using the funding proposed for the Australian Rhino Project to support locally-led conservation or to educate people to reduce consumer demand for rhino horn in Asia seem far more acceptable options.
The world’s largest absolute emitter could certainly use US inaction as an excuse to backslide on its promises of greenery. But China could instead see this as an opportunity to project itself as our planet’s leading custodian.
Evidence suggests the latter course is far more likely. Opening the annual National People’s Congress in March, premier Li Keqiang pledged to “make the sky blue again”. Both the report he presented and the legislation and decisions reached continued to stress environmental issues, albeit perhaps not as emphatically as in recent years.
Meanwhile, in January at the annual World Economic Forum pow-wow in Davos, president Xi Jinping took advantage of Trump’s economic nationalism to affirm China’s commitment to globalisation. As the US rejects the very idea of global responsibilities, China is thus apparently aiming to reap the rewards of positioning itself as the polar opposite.
This isn’t just empty rhetoric. Chinese investment overseas in green technology increased by 60% last year to US$32 billion. More importantly, the broader context of Chinese domestic politics has created strong incentives for further environmental efforts. This suggests an authentic medium to long-term commitment. And in China, it is the “dog” of domestic politics and regime legitimacy that wags the “tail” of geopolitical strategising.
Domestic pressure for climate policy
The environment is already a massive and potentially explosive issue within China. The increasingly powerful urban middle classes are becoming ever-more aware of environmental issues, particularly those that affect their health, such as air pollution or food, soil and water safety.
The government’s key programme to make manufacturing more innovative is also intimately tied to environmental goals and the opportunities of “cleantech” such as electric cars). Even China’s digital giants including Alibaba and Tencent are more interested in the environment than their equivalents
in Silicon Valley.
Restoring Chinese greatness
There are even broader factors at play too. As the country has grown in both domestic prosperity and global stature over the past 40 years it has gradually been compelled to address with ever-greater urgency its own central question. This is: how will China once again be the unquestioned centre of the world?
Restoring civilisational preeminence is easier said than done, however, especially given the starting place for these efforts. The past 200 years have seen a violent repudiation of traditional cultures and painful engagement with Western-dominated modernity. This remains a sensitive wound. For central to the Chinese concept of a unique “Chineseness” is both its unsurpassed cultural greatness and its unrivalled longevity.
Embryonic “soft power” efforts have proven problematic, which calls into question the universal appeal of Chinese culture. Meanwhile, traditional ideas such as Confucianism occupy only peripheral roles in contemporary life. This exposes both the comparative youth of modern China and the unresolved legacies of its traumatic breaks with its past.
The situation creates twinned dissonances: between China’s actual and “rightful” standing in the world and between its actual and desired relation to its own traditional culture. Crucially, though, protecting the environment is seen by the government as a key opportunity in both cases. Hence Beijing’s leading slogan of “ecological civilization” – significantly a civilizational project that also, inseparably, has environmental sustainability at its heart.
The idea here is to draw on and renew distinctively Chinese ideas of Confucian harmony between humans and nature. This, it is hoped, could present a China to the world whose culture uniquely qualifies it to be the global environmental saviour. And it could reconnect the Chinese themselves to their traditional cultures, updated for a contemporary world of environmental responsibility.
Progress is unlikely to be smooth. China’s one-party state does allow for the massive mobilisation of resources crucial to the major projects of sustainable transitions. But that same political structure – best described as “fragmented authoritarianism” – also makes it harder to foster cutting-edge innovation and harder to implement environmental regulations – and to involve different stakeholders in decision-making.
As such, China still lags behind the US in the global game of cultural hegemony. Yet its grand project of “ecological civilization” is so important in contemporary domestic politics that the environment will likely be seen as China’s trump card for some time yet. If America chooses to play its hand badly in the meantime, this will simply be welcomed in Beijing as a further stroke of good luck.
It’s remarkable how little we know about Earth. How many species do we share this planet with? We don’t know, but estimates vary from millions to a trillion. In some respects we know more about the Moon, Mars and Venus than we do about the ocean’s depths and the vast sea floors.
But humans are inquisitive creatures, and we’re driven to explore. Chasing mythical or mysterious animals grabs media headlines and spurs debates, but it can also lead to remarkable discoveries.
The recent photographing of a live night parrot in Western Australia brought much joy. These enigmatic nocturnal birds have been only sporadically sighted over decades.
Another Australian species that inspires dedicated searchers is the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine. A new hunt is under way, not in Tasmania but in Queensland’s vast wilderness region of Cape York.
Other plans are afoot to search for the long-beaked echidna in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.
In the case of the thylacine, old accounts from the region that sound very much like descriptions of the species raise the prospect that perhaps Cape York isn’t such a bad place to look after all.
But in reality, and tragically, it’s very unlikely that either of these species still survives in Australia. For some species there is scientific research that estimates just how improbable such an event would be; in the case of thylacines, one model suggests the odds are 1 in 1.6 trillion.
The study and pursuit of “hidden” animals, thought to be extinct or fictitious, is often called cryptozoology. The word itself invites scorn – notorious examples include the search for Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster or Victoria’s legendary black panthers.
Granted, it’s probably apt to describe those searches as wild goose chases, but we must also acknowledge that genuine species – often quite sizeable ones – have been discovered.
In some cases, like the giant squid, these animals have been dismissed as legends. The reclusive oarfish, for example, are thought to be the inspiration for centuries of stories about sea serpents.
Technology to the rescue
Finding rare and cryptic species is self-evidently challenging, but rapid advances in technology open up amazing possibilities. Camera traps now provide us with regular selfies of once highly elusive snow leopards, and could equally be used with other difficult-to-find animals.
Environmental DNA is allowing us to detect species otherwise difficult to observe. Animal DNA found in the blood of leeches has uncovered rare and endangered mammals, meaning these and other much maligned blood-sucking parasites could be powerful biodiversity survey tools.
Acoustic recording devices can be left in areas for extended time periods, allowing us to eavesdrop on ecosystems and look out for sounds that might indicate otherwise hidden biological treasures. And coupling drones with thermal sensors and high resolution cameras means we can now take an eagle eye to remote and challenging environments.
The benefits of exploration and lessons learned
It’s easy to criticise the pursuit of the unlikely, but “miracles” can and do occur, sometimes on our doorstep. The discovery of the ancient Wollemi pine is a case in point. Even if we don’t find what we’re after, we may still benefit from what we learn along the way.
I’ve often wondered how many more species might be revealed to us if scientists invested more time in carefully listening to, recording and following up on the knowledge of Indigenous, farming, and other communities who have long and intimate associations with the land and sea.
Such an approach, combined with the deployment of new technologies, could create a boom of biological discovery.