The case for introducing rhinos to Australia

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Australia could sustain wild rhinos, but should it try?
Renaud Fulconis/International Rhino Foundation, Author provided

Bill Laurance, James Cook University

Rhinos in Australia might seem like an insane proposition – after all, we’ve had historically bad luck with introduced species. But on reflection it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds.

There are five species of rhinoceros in the world: two in Africa and three in Asia.

The world of all five species is being rapidly destroyed and shredded, their savanna and forest habitats sliced apart by clearings, fences, roads, and other obstructions.

Read more:
Hybrid embryos raise hope of resurrecting northern white rhino – but what’s the point?

Even worse, they are being slaughtered by armed poachers for their valuable rhino horn, which is falsely thought to have aphrodisiac or curative properties, for maladies ranging from hangovers to cancer.

Vietnam and China are overwhelmingly the biggest consumers of rhino horn. Chinese citizens and even diplomats working in Africa and Asia have reportedly engaged in the illegal smuggling of rhino horn and other wildlife products.

Collapsing populations

Rhinos are relicts of a great megafauna that until recently dominated the planet. Today, they are some of the most endangered animals on Earth.

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For instance, the Sumatran Rhinoceros is so rare that biologists refuse to disclose where it still lives, to avoid tipping off poachers – beyond confirming it persists in small pockets of northern Sumatra, Indonesia.

The Sumatran Rhino, the most primitive rhino species, is a denizen of dense rainforests.
Bill Konstant/International Rhino Foundation

The Javan Rhinoceros was once the most abundant rhino species in Asia, ranging from Southeast Asia to India and China. But today it is one of the rarest mammals on Earth, with just 60 animals surviving in far western Java, Indonesia.

Read more:
Saving Javan rhinos from extinction starts with counting them – and it’s not easy

In Africa, White Rhinos and Black Rhinos are having mixed fortunes – but mostly bad.

The Black Rhino was once widely distributed across eastern and southern Africa, but its numbers have dramatically fallen and nearly half of its unique subspecies have vanished.

The White Rhino has two distinct subspecies. The southern subspecies collapsed to just 20 individuals a century ago, but with dedicated protection it has made an astounding comeback – to around 20,000 animals today, by far the most numerous of all rhinos.

A White Rhino from southern Africa.

But the northern White Rhino is virtually gone. The last male died on March 19, and only two females are alive in captivity.

In recent weeks scientists have used frozen sperm and harvested eggs to create a few test-tube embryos, which they hope to implant into a southern female in a last-ditch effort to stave off the northern subspecies’ demise.

Read more:
Even if you were the last rhino on Earth… why populations can’t be saved by a single breeding pair

Fatal circumstances

All of this means that most of the nations with rhino populations are having profound difficulties maintaining them. Not that it’s easy. Rhinos are big, near-sighted, and rather predictable in their habits – easy prey for poachers.

They live in developing nations with many impoverished people, where lethal weapons are frighteningly common and the rule of law is precarious.

And they have horns worth up to US$300,000 each.

In efforts to staunch the slaughter, some nations are de-horning their rhinos, or assigning guards to watch over them day and night, like heavily armed sheep herders.

Proliferating roads are slicing into rhino habitats, increasing access for poachers.

South Africa is even treating rhino-horn powder with powerful poisons to help scare off illicit consumers.

Lynn Johnson, an enterprising Melbourne businesswoman, has raised tens of thousands of dollars to place ads in Vietnamese magazines and newspapers, warning about the poisons and decrying the rhino slaughter.

Read more:
Why allowing the sale of horn stockpiles is a setback for rhinos in the wild

Such measures are certainly helping, but it’s a fraught battle. Roads are proliferating dramatically in developing nations, increasing access to ecosystems for poachers. And human populations and the many pressures they bring are growing rapidly in Africa and Asia.

Some experts believe that captive breeding is the most viable near-term solution, especially for the distressingly rare Sumatran and Javan Rhinos. Maintaining them in zoos or breeding facilities keeps alive the hope that they might one day be reintroduced to the wild.

Captive breeding might be the last chance for some rhino species.

A crazy idea?

But why not introduce rhinos to Australia? Before you laugh out loud, consider this.

Australia has abundant savannas, woodlands and rainforests that the various species of rhinos need to survive. And rhinos are generalist grazers or browsers, meaning they are not especially picky about what they eat.

Read more:
EcoCheck: Australia’s vast, majestic northern savannas need more care

Australia has a strong rule of law and minimal wildlife poaching, with huge numbers of ecotourists who would surely be keen to see spectacular rhinos. One group, the Australian Rhino Project, is already trying to establish a White Rhino population in Australasia.

But while I might be crazy, I’m not stupid.

I am not suggesting that rhinos be allowed to roam free in Australia. Under such circumstances they could degrade native ecosystems and even pose a danger to people. Rather, rhinos should be contained in cattle stations or other enclosed areas.

And I am not suggesting that harbouring rhinos in Australia would mean reducing efforts to save them in the wild or conserve their crucial habitats.

Indeed, preserving rhinos without protecting their native ecosystems is like saving a few shiny baubles from Christmas, while throwing away the Christmas tree that held them.

An Indian One-horned Rhinoceros.

Rather, the idea would be to establish semi-wild or managed populations that could buffer rhinos against global extinction, and at the same time provide public education and raise money.

Any effort that failed to provide revenue to conserve wild rhinos and their native habitat – especially if it competed for funding with current conservation initiatives – would be a perverse and undesirable outcome.

Of course, when it comes down to it, introducing rhinos to Australia is a pretty wild idea. Maybe my tongue is in my cheek, and I’m just trying to get other tongues wagging about the desperate need for rhino conservation.

The ConversationBut whatever we do about rhinos, it’s clear that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Here’s a funny thing: can comedy really change our environmental behaviours?

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Bernard Hermant/Unsplash

Kim Borg, Monash University and Denise Goodwin, Monash University

Someone (possibly George Bernard Shaw) once said: “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you”. While comedy can certainly soften a message, can it really change our behaviour?

ABC radio will tonight host a live comedy debate ahead of the next series of its popular War on Waste television series. The topic: whether the show actually works in reducing waste.

Behavioural science, which examines why people do or don’t do things, can unravel the puzzle. Essentially, humour is very good at getting people’s attention and helping them remember information. But it can backfire if we don’t take the behaviour change message seriously.

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Can you feel it?

We know that simply telling people facts doesn’t usually motivate change. When it comes to wide-ranging behaviour change campaigns (like anti-speeding, moderate drinking and anti-smoking), a common strategy is to tap into our emotions.

Behaviour change campaigns often “frame” messages in terms of personal loss or gain. This rationale is based on exchange theory, which focuses on the cost–benefit exchange of adopting a behaviour.

This framing can then evoke an emotional response. For example, “loss” framing, which focuses on negative outcomes of a behaviour, can make us feel guilty, shocked, angry, or sad. In theory, when we see such messages we will reflect on our own behaviours and then adjust them to avoid those negative feelings in the future.

Gain-framed messages, which focus on positive outcomes, are more persuasive than loss-framed messages when attempting to change people’s behaviour. But positive emotions, like humour, are less common in social marketing.

Funny ads are easier to recall and can increase awareness, knowledge, and actions. They can also engage a larger audience. For example, “Dumb ways to die”, a campaign by Metro Trains in Melbourne to promote rail safety, went viral in 2012 and has racked up more than 168 million views on YouTube. This campaign showed that, sometimes, a life-and-death issue can be discussed with humour.

Just humour me

According to evolutionary theory, positive emotions encourage the uptake of behaviours (like feeling pride for carrying a reusable water bottle), whereas negative emotions promote withdrawal behaviours (like feeling guilty for forgetting to refuse a plastic straw).

Positive appeals are also more likely to “get people talking” and are better at encouraging voluntary compliance with a behavioural request. Unlike negative appeals, positivity doesn’t trigger a defensive response when trying to change behaviour.

When a positive appeal – like humour – is added to negative messaging, we can capture people’s attention while avoiding unhelpful defensive responses. But, be warned: engagement doesn’t always lead to desired behaviour change.

Too funny to succeed

But comedy can also backfire. America’s Centers for Disease Control tried to pair humour with fear in its “Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic” disaster preparedness campaign. This public service message unfortunately reduced individuals’ likelihood of developing an emergency plan. In this instance, humour trivialised the issue of disaster preparedness and compromised the ability of the message to encourage the desired behaviour.

Making people smile doesn’t always make them change. If a message is meant to be threatening – for example “if you speed, you will die” – humour may not be the best tool. However, a social threat with a humour-based message can be effective. For example, the “Pinkie” safe driving campaign reduced simulated driving speeds by an average of 4km per hour.

The ‘Pinkie’ ad reduced speeding.

Comedy, waste and consumption

Humour can be the hook that gets our attention. Comedy is usually a form of veiled (or not so veiled) criticism. It is used to hold up a mirror to society – to ridicule our vices and shortcomings and shame us into improvement – while our guard is down.

The first series of the ABC’s War on Waste had a huge effect on consumers’ behaviours – for instance, it helped to drive a 400% increase in KeepCup sales.

It tapped into the community’s anxiety that we are producing too much waste, and our growing realisation we have to do something about it. But it was presented in a cheeky, personable and positive way: “Look at this tram full of coffee cups. Can you believe how much waste we produce? We have to change this behaviour. And here’s how.”

When Coles and Woolworths recently stopped providing free plastic shopping bags, some people voiced their resistance to the change. This resistance was met with mockery by comedians including Kitty Flannigan on The Weekly and Wil Anderson on Gruen, and even by the retail workers’ union.

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This “comedy backlash” highlights another important point about humour and persuasion: we don’t want to be the group being mocked. We want to be part of the in-group who are mocking the out-group.

Sometimes, when the truth hurts, laughter is how we deal with it. It’s not the whole story, and there’s a lot more to learn about humour and waste behaviours. But it can be a useful tool in helping us acknowledge what we’re doing wrong so we can do the right thing.

The ConversationThe ABC live radio debate on the War on Waste will be live-streamed between 7pm – 9pm on July 19.

Kim Borg, Doctoral Candidate & Research Officer at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University and Denise Goodwin, Research Fellow, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Curious Kids: Why do volcanoes erupt?

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Some explosive volcanoes can send ash high up into the sky and it can travel around the world over different countries.

Heather Handley, Macquarie University

This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky! You might also like the podcast Imagine This, a co-production between ABC KIDS listen and The Conversation, based on Curious Kids.

Why do volcanoes erupt? – Nicholas, age 3 years and 11 months, Northmead, NSW.

The rock inside the planet we live on can melt to form molten rock called magma. This magma is lighter than the rocks around it and so it rises upwards. Where the magma eventually reaches the surface we get an eruption and volcanoes form.

The top part of the Earth is made up of a number of hard pieces called tectonic plates. Magma and volcanoes often form where the plates are pulled apart or pushed together but we also find some volcanoes in the middle of tectonic plates.

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Curious Kids: why doesn’t lava melt the side of the volcano?

Volcanoes have many different shapes and sizes, some look like steep mountains (stratovolcanoes), others look like bumps (shield volcanoes) and some are flat with a hole (a crater or caldera) in the centre that is often filled with water.

The shape of the volcano and how explosively it erupts depend largely on how “sticky” and how “fizzy” (how much gas) the magma is that is erupted.

For example, if you try to blow bubbles in cooking oil though a straw, the bubbles can escape quite easily because the cooking oil is runny.

If you try to blow bubbles in jam or peanut butter you would find it very difficult because the jam and peanut butter are very sticky, they wouldn’t move much at all if you tried to pour them out of the jar.

It is the same with volcanoes. When magma rises towards the surface gas bubbles start to form. Whether or not they can escape as the magma is rising affects how explosive the eruption will be.

Where the magma is runny like cooking oil and doesn’t have much bubbly gas mixed in it, such as places like Hawaii, then we see lots of slow-moving lava flows and shield volcanoes. Lava is what we call magma when it reaches the surface.

Here are some pictures of a recent Hawaiian eruption:

However, where the magma is very sticky, like jam or peanut butter, and if it contains a lot of bubbly gas then the gas can get stuck and eruptions can be very powerful and explosive, like the recent eruptions at Fuego volcano in Guatemala.

Damage caused by eruptions

In explosive eruptions the frothy, bubbly magma can be ripped apart into tiny bits called volcanic ash. This is not ash like you get after a barbecue or fire, it does not crumble away in your fingers. It is very sharp and is dangerous to breathe in.

Some explosive volcanoes can send ash high up into the sky and it can travel around the world over different countries. If aeroplanes travel through an ash cloud from a volcano it can cause a lot of damage to the engine.

Other explosive eruptions create fast-moving, hot clouds of volcanic ash, gas and rocks that travel down the sides of the volcanoes and destroy pretty much everything in their path.

The benefits of volcanoes

Despite the great damage they can cause, volcanoes also help us to live. Volcanic ash provides food for the soil around volcanoes which helps us grow plants to eat. The heat from some volcanoes is used to make energy to power lights, fridges, televisions and computers in people’s houses.

You can find some more information about different types of volcanoes here and here.

Read more:
Curious Kids: Do most volcanologists die from getting too close to volcanoes?

Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to us. They can:

* Email your question to

* Tell us on Twitter by tagging @ConversationEDU with the hashtag #curiouskids, or

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The ConversationPlease tell us your name, age, and which city you live in. You can send an audio recording of your question too, if you want. Send as many questions as you like! We won’t be able to answer every question but we will do our best.

Heather Handley, Associate Professor in Volcanology and Geochemistry, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.