Tag Archives: rhino

All hopes to save the northern white rhinos now rest on a single female

Researchers will stop harvesting eggs from one of the two remaining northern white rhinoceros in the world, according to a Thursday announcement by BioRescue, according to the AFP.

A southern white rhino mother and calf. Image credits Hein Waschefort via Wikimedia.

Efforts to bring the species back from the brink of extinction are still underway. Currently, BioRescue is focusing on extracting eggs from the two remaining northern white rhino females. However, the scientific consortium announced on Thursday that one of the females, 32-year-old Najin, will be retired as a donor from the project.

Although Najin has been a valuable participant, and despite all the care being taken during its various procedures, BioRescue simply feels like the risks to Najin outweigh the benefits she could bring to the program at this point.

Hard choice to make

“Weighing up risks and opportunities for the individuals and the entire species rendered this decision without an alternative,” BioRescue said in a statement.

The only other northern white rhino on Earth, and Najin’s daughter, Fatu, has thus remained the sole egg donor for the program. Using her cells, researchers will try to develop viable embryos. Neither Fatu nor Najin are able to carry a pregnancy to term, so surrogate mothers from the closely-related southern white rhino subspecies will be used.

This assisted reproduction programme has been underway since 2019.

Harvesting of the eggs involved a high-risk procedure. Although it was carried out by an international team of excellent veterinarians, it still required the animals to be anesthetized for almost two hours, and the extraction process involved the use of specialized techniques — all of which means that there was an unavoidable level of risk involved in the programme.

Thankfully, the process was successful. The eggs were then taken to a lab in Italy for fertilization, development into embryos, and preservation. Frozen sperm from two (now-deceased) male northern white rhinos was used for this step.

So far, the programme has resulted in the creation of three embryos of the northern white rhino subspecies. But these were all developed from eggs harvested from Fatu. As such, it simply doesn’t make sense to keep risking Najin’s wellbeing.

“She will remain a part of the programme, for example by providing tissue samples for stem cell approaches, which can be performed with minimal invasion,” said Jan Stejskal, director of international projects at Safari Park Dvur Kralovs, where Najin was born in 1989.

It’s safe to say that programmes such as this one are the subspecies’ last shot at avoiding extinction. Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, died at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in 2018. Najin and Fatu are currently living under permanent guard at the same location.

Those guards are not meant to protect the animals from predators. Rhinos only need to fear precious little threats in the wild. Their populations were decimated, instead, by poachers over the last 5 decades or so.

Scientists extract the oldest DNA data from 1.7-million-year-old rhino tooth

A group of researchers extracted genetic information from a 1.77 million-year-old rhino tooth—the largest genetic data set this old to ever be confidently recorded. They identified an almost complete set of proteins, a proteome, in the dental enamel of the now-extinct rhino.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The findings mark a breakthrough in the field of ancient molecular studies and could solve some of the biggest mysteries of ancient animal and human biology by allowing scientists to accurately reconstruct evolution from further back in time than ever before.

The genetic information discovered is one million years older than the oldest DNA sequenced, which came from a 700,000-year-old horse. The findings by scientists from the University of Copenhagen and St John’s College, University of Cambridge, are published in the journal Nature.

“For 20 years, ancient DNA has been used to address questions about the evolution of extinct species, adaptation, and human migration but it has limitations,” said first author Professor Enrico Cappellini. “Now, for the first time, we have retrieved ancient genetic information which allows us to reconstruct molecular evolution way beyond the usual time limit of DNA preservation.”

Human evolution that is tracked by DNA only covers the last 400,000 years. But the lineages that led to modern humans and to the chimpanzee branched apart around six to seven million years ago. This means scientists currently have no genetic information for more than 90% of the evolutionary path that led to modern humans.

Researchers also do not know what the genetic links are between us and extinct species such as Homo erectus – the oldest known species of human to have had modern human-like body proportions. As things stand, everything that is known is based almost exclusively on anatomical and not genetic information.

In this new study, the team used ancient protein sequencing – based on groundbreaking technology called mass spectrometry – to retrieve genetic information from the tooth. They took samples of dental enamel from the ancient fossil, which was discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia.

Mass spectrometry was used to sequence the ancient protein and retrieved genetic information previously unobtainable using DNA testing. Tooth enamel is the hardest material present in mammals, and the set of proteins it contains lasts longer than DNA and is more genetically informative than collagen, scientists said.

“This research is a game-changer that opens up a lot of options for further evolutionary study in terms of humans as well as mammals. It will revolutionize the methods of investigating evolution based on molecular markers and it will open a completely new field of ancient biomolecular studies, said professor Eske Willerslev.

Northern white rhino eggs fertilized in bid to save the species

In about 10 days’ time, we’ll see if it worked or not.

Researchers in Italy report fertilizing eggs collected from the last two females of the species. There are no living male northern white rhinos currently in the world, so the team used frozen sperm from Sudan, the now-dead last male.

In about 10 days, we’ll know if any have developed into an embryo. The plan is to help the species reproduce via a surrogate mother rhino.

All the eggs in one basket

“We expect some of them will develop into an embryo,” says Cesare Galli, co-founder of the Avantea lab where the work was carried out. Galli is also the corresponding author of the study detailing the process.

The female rhinos currently live at Ol Pejeta, a wildlife conservancy nearly three times the size of San Francisco in the heart of Kenya. Out of the 10 eggs that were recovered in June, only 7 could be used in the process.

The male, a 45-year-year-old named Sudan, became “The Most Eligible Bachelor in the World” on the Tinder dating app in a fundraising effort. He was euthanized after age-related complications last year. Researchers froze his sperm as they prepared for this current procedure. Galli quips that it is better not to “get to the last two individuals before you use this technology.”

The end goal is to raise a herd of at least five individuals and re-introduce them in their natural habitat, which could take decades to accomplish.

In the meantime, there’s the issue of poaching. The northern white rhino was driven extinct by poachers killing the animals for their horns. Advocacy group Save the Rhino says that roughly 2,360 northern white rhinos roamed Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda as recently as 1960. By 1984, it dropped to about 15.

Other rhino species are also prey for poachers, but they’re not in as dire shape as the northern white. Reintroducing five animals into the wild won’t do any good as long as there are still poachers around.

The paper “Embryos and embryonic stem cells from the whiterhinoceros” has been published in the journal Nature.

Researchers are one step closer to saving the northern white rhino from complete extinction

Researchers in Europe have fertilized a rhino egg in vivo and then successfully transferred it back to the female. Their plan is to now perform the same procedure for the northern white rhino, to save the species from extinction.

Rhino.

Rhinos are under extreme pressure from habitat loss and poachers.
Image via Pixabay.

The procedure was performed by an international team of European researchers at the Chorzow zoo in Poland and involved a southern white rhino female. The work came as part of the BioRescue Project, an international team of scientists and conservationists trying to use IVF to save the almost-extinct northern white rhino.

Last of their kind

“This is the first positive proof that the entire procedure we’ve developed in theory can be successful,” said Thomas Hildebrandt (link in German) of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, who participated in the project.

There are only two northern white rhinos left in the world — and they’re both females. The last male (whose name was Sudan) died in March 2018 shortly after starting a Tinder account. However, researchers had preserved frozen samples from several males beforehand, as a kind of insurance policy that the species won’t be completely wiped out. Due to a lack of northern white rhinos, they’re testing the IVF transfer on southern white rhinos, a closely related sub-species whose numbers have stabilized in the wild. They now report that the transfer was successful.

As such, the BioRescue team was applied for permission from the Kenyan government to harvest eggs from the last two surviving northern rhino females — a mother and daughter called Najin and Fatu — and are currently awaiting a reply. Kenya’s ambassador in Germany, Joseph Magutt, said his country supports the effort but didn’t say how long it would take for the process to move forward.

The IVF technique is required in this case because the two females are unable to bear offspring themselves; once their embryos are fertilized in the lab, they will be implanted in a southern white rhino surrogate mother.

However, not all is rosy. Hildebrandt says that ultrasound tests show the embryo transferred at Chorzow zoo has grown, but that it’s smaller than expected. As of yet, it’s also unsure whether the embryo will implant in the female’s uterine lining, resulting in a pregnancy. In the meantime, the BioRescue team is working on ways to turn preserved skin cells (from deceased rhinos) into eggs or sperm.

Should it be successful, the technique would offer a safety net for other species on the brink of collapse — and there are many. A recent United Nations report warned that a million species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades, largely because of human activity.

Amazing new footage of rare and elusive Javan rhino wallowing in the mud

Taking a bath is a special, relaxing moment for most people — the elusive Javan rhino seems to agree. Conservationists working in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park have caught rare footage of a wild Javan rhino wallowing in the mud. This animal is the most threatened of the five rhino species, with only a couple dozen individuals remaining in the wild.

When people think about rhinos, they tend to think about African rhinos. But Sumatran and Javan rhinos are just as iconic and, unfortunately, even more threatened than their African counterparts.

Conservationists estimate that only 68 Javan rhinos remain alive today, all confined to Ujung Kulon National Park in West Java, Indonesia. The park lies in the shadow of Krakatoa, which means that a natural disaster in the area could wipe all of them out with one blow. However, the species has far more immediate threats to worry about: poaching, disease, and habitat loss.

Javan rhinos were once common in parts of India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Southern China. Across the centuries, however, humans have reduced the Javan rhino to a tiny enclave. Local communities had relied on the sub-species for food, but its demise was brought on by demand for its horn, which is prized in traditional medicine, and habitat destruction. The last Vietnamese Javan rhino was found poached in 2010 during a joint WWF and national park study. Since then, the Javan rhino can only be found in a single spot in the wild.

The Javan rhino looks very similar to its closely-related one-horned rhinoceros relatives but has a much smaller head and less apparent skin folds. The animal’s skin is dusky grey in color and has numerous loose folds, which resemble armor plating. Not only are Javan rhinos few and far between, but they’re also very solitary creatures, which makes them much harder to find than their African counterparts.

Researchers at Global Wildlife Conservation and WWF-Indonesia were able to film in near-dusk light, which offered the perfect lighting for the mud show. For Dr. Robin Moore, one of the team members from Global Wildlife Conservation who recorded the footage, meeting a Javan rhino for the first time was like a surreal experience.

“The rhino is so rare and so elusive that it has a kind of mythical quality. The first days spent looking for it were unsuccessful, and you start to prepare yourself for the bitter disappointment of going home without a glimpse. Nothing happens, until it all of a sudden does. For me it was sitting on the platform that our team had built near a mud wallow, late in the afternoon of our fourth day of the trip. We were preparing to settle in for the night when a crashing sound to our right froze us to the spot. It could only be a rhino. We waited, holding our breath, willing it to appear. And when it did, emerging from the forest and into the wallow, it took the brain a moment to catch up and realize that this was really happening,” Moore told ZME Science.

“It felt surreal – and such a privilege to be in the presence of this rare and majestic animal. The rhino stayed in the wallow long enough for us to relax into its presence and really soak in the moment. And then it surprised us by clambering out of the wallow and walking in our direction, before stopping and angling its head towards us. Seeing the glint in its eye was a really magical moment. And then it disappeared into the forest as quickly as it had appeared, and that was the last I saw of the Javan Rhino,” he added.

Population distribution of the Javan Rhino. Credit: WWF.

Population distribution of the Javan Rhino. Credit: WWF.

The touching footage serves as a reminder that this rare and beautiful animal is in grave peril and that we must work hard to reverse its decline. There is some good news in this sense. In 1962, there were only 20 individuals left in the wild, but thanks to conservation efforts the population has climbed to 68 individuals in 2018. Conservationists at WWF are now working hard to breed more Javan rhinos, hoping to facilitate the birth of at least 13 calves by 2025. They would also like to establish a second population to shield the species from the risk of a major catastrophic event or disease outbreak.

“We have successfully recovered the White rhino, Black rhino, and Indian rhino from close to extinction, the time now is to focus on the less well known, and highly threatened rhino species which are both restricted to Indonesia – the Javan and the Sumatran rhino,” Dr. Barney Long, Senior Director of Species Conservation at the Global Wildlife Conservation.

China lifts ban on tiger and rhino parts for “traditional medicine”

The world’s most populous country has reversed a ban on tiger and rhino parts — Chinese officials have announced that the country will allow the use of rhinoceros horns and tiger bones in traditional medicine, a move which conservationists have called a “massive blow” to wildlife.

Few animals are more iconic than tigers and rhinos, yet these two groups are on the brink of extinction. Three tiger species have already gone extinct, with the remaining six species measuring fewer than 4,000 individuals between them. For rhinos, the situation is even more brutal, and even the smaller black rhino, which features 5,000 individuals, is considered critically endangered.

Poaching is one of the main forces driving them to extinction. Nearly every part of a tiger has been used to “treat” a nearly endless list of health issues — even though there’s no science to support any of these “treatments”. The same thing happens to rhinos.

Bones are particularly prized in traditional Chinese medicine. After the skin and muscles are peeled off, the bone is dried and smashed into a powder, and then mixed into various potions that allegedly treat health conditions.

In the earlier parts of the century, the bones came from a massive national stockpile. As part of the People’s Republic of China’s Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong declared tigers were pests preventing national development, leading to a dramatic decline in the tiger population — which was a godsend for traditional healers, who stockpiled dried animal parts. For the South China Tiger, which is now probably extinct, it was the end of the road. But even so, the stockpiles started running low around 1986, so professional poachers started hunting tigers in other areas — particularly where corruption was rife and law enforcement was non-existent. As a result, many other populations started declining.

From 1990 to 1992, China exported some 27 million units of tiger medicines and wine to 26 countries, according to TRAFFIC, a nonprofit that documents illegal wildlife trade. Reluctantly, China took action, and one year later, enacted a ban on tiger and rhino medicine trade. While the black market never really went away and remained very active, few pharmacies openly sold these remedies, and the problem was at least curbed. It wasn’t perfect, but China did take steps to implement and enforce the ban, carrying out public education campaigns, preventing effective substitutes for tiger and rhino medicines, and strengthening law enforcement.

Now, China wants to go back on that ban.

The State Council, China’s cabinet, recently released a policy directive explaining that it will legalize the use of rhino horns and tiger bones for “medical research or in healing,” but only by certified hospitals and doctors, and only from rhinos and tigers raised in captivity, excluding zoo animals.

“Rhino horns and tiger bones used in medical research or in healing can only be obtained from farmed rhinos and tigers, not including those raised in zoos. Powdered forms of rhino horn and bones from dead tigers can only be used in qualified hospitals by qualified doctors recognized by the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine,” the directive read.

This move came as a surprise and raised criticism from environmental groups, who said it would bring back the dark days of tiger and rhino trading.

“It’s a devastating decision,” said Leigh Henry, director of wildlife policy at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. “I can’t overstate the potential impact.”

The Chinese state media tried to spin this as a way to help protect rhinos and tigers, by improving oversight. However, this is a partial return on the ban, which is by no means an improvement.

Enforcement on the ban was already hard enough, but now, with this setback, things are almost certainly going to get worse.

According to the WWF, there are 6,500 tigers in captivity in China, as of 2010. There’s no newer data, and the number of captive rhinos is unknown.

Aside from the “growing” of these wild, endangered animals for parts, there’s a good chance wild animals will also end up caught in the fray, since the captive animals might not satisfy the market, and the origin of the body parts can be forged with relative ease.

 

This startup plans to end rhino poaching by counterfeiting illegal goods — and it could work

A Seattle-based startup plans to save the rhinos — by outselling the poachers. Key to this strategy will be bio-fabricating fake horns out of keratin, the substance hair and fingernails are made of, to tank the price of horns on the black market and drive poachers out of business.

Black rhino horn.

Image via Wikimedia.

There’s one pretty nifty concept in economics that has stubbornly defied policy ever since someone first thought of banning anything — supply and demand. It’s why the Prohibition worked about as well as a raft made of concrete and why the harder we push forth the “war on drugs” the less headway we make.

By eliminating any legal avenue of satisfying a certain demand, bans effectively grant a monopoly over that good or service to the black market. In the process, officials lose any control over said commodity. Prices soar because that’s how monopolies work. The extra value justifies the risk of selling a ‘banned’ good, supply grows to meet demand, and voila! It’s illegal, but it’s lucrative, so trade flourishes. To put it bluntly, when people want something, the fact that it’s “illegal” won’t stop them. They’ll just go buy it (at a premium) from a shady dude in a shady alley instead of a supermarket.

That same economic ebb-and-flow is killing off the rhino today. The animals’ horns are banned for trade under international law and  have become ridiculously valuable on the black market, fetching up to US$60,000 a pound ($133,200 per kilogram). That’s about three to four times more than gold, depending on who you’re asking. Demand is powered chiefly by East Asian markets, with Vietnam and China making up the bulk of trade. Horns are used to make high-valued carvings, from cups to jewelry, and traditional Chinese medicine holds that they will make you, among other things, quite horny. A pun I’d delight over if not for the tragedy of the situation.

The end of the matter is that rhinos today are on the brink of extinction. Decades of Western trophy hunting, poaching, and habitat destruction have decimated overall rhino populations. Between 1970 and 1992, for example, black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) saw a 96% reduction in numbers. Other species are also hard pressed, such as the Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus), currently estimated to number only 60 individuals according to the World Wildlife Foundation, or the white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) that are still making a comeback from numbering only 6 individuals in 2014.

Rhino sizes.

Size comparison for the five species of rhino.
Image via Wikimedia.

Three out of the five rhino species are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN’s Red List, and not a single one listed above “Vulnerable”. Habitat loss and poaching are currently the biggest threats to the rhinos. According to nonprofit Save the Rhino, 1,054 rhinos were killed in 2016 in South Africa alone, up from just 13 animals in 2007.

Pss, kids, wanna buy some horns?

Enter Seattle-based biotech startup Pembient. They’re trying to solve half the rhinos’ problems by literally making rhino horns so dirt-cheap no poacher worth his salt will bother with them. Their idea is to bio-fabricate fake horns out of keratin, a protein organisms use when strength and flexibility are required. It makes up stuff like fingernails and hooves, hair or fur, horns, and claws. By 3D printing keratin, Pembient hopes to manufacture fake horns that are identical on a “macroscopic, microscopic, and molecular” level to the real ones, according to its CEO and co-founder Matthew Markus.

The scheme isn’t ready to go right now. Once the fabricated horns are up to scratch and market-ready, however, they’ll feel so real that it will be “impossible” to distinguish them from natural horns, Markus told Business Insider. They’ll then be injected into the Asian carvers’ supply chain through various sources masquerading as honest poachers trying to get by. In the end, nobody will know whether they’re buying real or fake.

“Trust me, it’s the real deal. Fresh out of the savanna.”
Image credits Fathromi Ramdlon.

In effect, Pembient plans to flood illegal markets with super-cheap, rhino-friendly, counterfeit horns. Because they’re manufactured in bulk in a plant, the fakes will be much cheaper and could be sold for significantly less than the real horns. Over time, since people won’t be able to tell the two apart, this unfair competition will bring prices down, sending poachers looking for new employment.

“If you cordon rhino horn off, you create this prohibition mindset,” Markus said. “And that engenders crime, corruption, and everything else that comes with a black market.”

It’s an interesting strategy, and radically different from traditional approaches used by conservationists. Bringing down demand for horns isn’t feasible, Markus thinks, adding that “it’s not really ethical either.” Instead, Pembient plans to increase supply so much that it would be impossible to turn a profit from poaching rhinos.

“These practices are based on thousands of years of cultural tradition — they’re a lot older than Thanksgiving,” he added, reffering to the traditional practices that maintain the rhino horn trade.

“We can’t just tell them to stop.”

There are some concerns leveled at the startup, however. In particular, International Rhino Foundation and Save The Rhino International, two NGOs working on rhino conservation, have raised concerns regarding the plans’ efficacy, pointing out that the black market is already swamped in fake horns and prices are still incredibly high.

“More than 90% of ‘rhino horns’ in circulation are fake (mostly carved from buffalo horn or wood), but poaching rates continue to rise annually,” the organizations wrote in a joint statement.

The two also argued that synthetic horns will divert attention from the “real problem,” which is to end rhino poaching.

Still, rhinos are running out of time as well as numbers, and as we’ve seen earlier, poaching has picked up in recent years. Markus agrees that Pembient’s approach is fundamentally different than current conservation efforts, but thinks his approach could help finally end poaching for good.

Personally, I’d like to think that while people may want the horns, nobody explicitly wants to kill rhinos. Tradition is a central pillar of many people’s lives, but I’d advocate for compromise. After all, traditionally, most people would work in the field and eek out a pretty bleak livelihood before an untimely end at the hands of dysentery some other, equally-jolly way to die horribly. A state of affairs which, I’m sure we can all agree, is best left in the past. So I’d really like to see Pembient succeed at their goal — for “restore-faith-in-humanity” points, if nothing else.

A “prevention and treatment” approach has shown efficacy in addressing drug abuse, so it might work for rhino horn trade as well. Time will tell. In August, the company introduced a novel cryptocurrency program, the “Pembicoin” to fund their research and development. Each coin will be redeemable for one gram of bio-fabricated rhino horn once they become available, in 2022, according to the company’s website.

If Pembient’s approach proves efficient, it could pave the way for synthetic ivory to combat elephant poaching in the future.

Sudan with guard.

The last male white rhino boldly goes on Tinder to save its species

As far as we know, there’s only one male white rhino still alive on the planet — and his name is Sudan. In a bid to ensure his specie’s continued survival, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy group joined hands with Tinder to raise the money required for the ongoin conservation species.

Sudan with guard.

Sudan with one of his guards.
Image credits Make it Kenya / Flickr.

Tinder may just have got its heaviest user ever. Starting today, users on the app will see Sudan’s profile pop up among their choice of potential dates. If you swipe right, you’ll get a message with a link to donate for a worthy cause: all the money will be used to fund ongoing research into Assisted Reproductive Techniques for the species.

“But why not do it the old fashioned way?” you might ask. “That’s the point of Tinder, right?”

Well, yes, but as it happens, 42-year old Sudan, who the app described as “the most eligible bachelor in the world”, currently lives under heavily armed guard at the conservancy in Kenya with two female rhinos, Najin and Fatu. They’ve been unable to breed for a number of reasons (especially old age), but not all is lost as there are 17,000 other potential females to do the deed. But they’re far away and capturing then shipping them to the conservancy is not only expensive, it’s also dangerous for the beasts.

Though to be honest, what lady wouldn’t brave some dangers for a profile this good?
Image credits Tinder.

And even if they get there, success is not guaranteed. So Ol Pejeta needs to raise US$9 million (8.2 million euros) to fund research into assisted reproductive techniques, which will be used to breed a herd of 10 northern white rhinos to stave off extinction. One technique named ovum pick-up, which has been developed on southern white rhinos, will be tailored to Sudan’s species and expanded on for this purpose. The team plans to collect eggs from the females Najin and Fatu, fertilize and re-implant them into surrogate females.

“This represents the last option to save the species after all previous breeding attempts proved futile,” said Ol Pejeta Conservancy CEO Richard Vigne. “Saving the northern white rhinos is critical if we are to, one day, reintroduce rhinos back into Central Africa.

“They contain unique genetic traits that confer upon them the ability to survive in this part of Africa. Ultimately, the aim will be to reintroduce a viable population of northern white rhino back into the wild which is where their true value will be realised”.

The research effort is already underway at various institutions in the US, Europe, and Japan. Right now, what the rhinos need is funding. So if you have some cash burning a hole in your poket take your smartphone and swipe, swipe, swipe for Sudan.

“Financial support remains the biggest challenge to this project. To win this run against time, it is crucial to find major funds as quickly as possible,” said Steven Seet, Head of press and communications at the Leibniz-IZW which is part of the research consortium.

Rangers in India found an effective yet questionable way of slamming down poaching — they kill the poachers

Rangers are equipped with guns, and they use them on sight — sometimes without warning.

Image credits: Kangkan.it2004

The Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India, is a remarkable story of conservation success. Despite the increasing black market demand for rhino ivory and despite total rhino numbers dropping significantly throughout the country, Kaziranga is doing great. The reason for that, as a BBC investigation has revealed, is the implementation of extreme measures.

Rangers have been militarized and shoot without hesitation. A BBC reporter recalls a conversation with a ranger:

“The instruction is whenever you see the poachers or hunters, we should start our guns and hunt them,” Avdesh explains without hesitation.

“You shoot them?” I [journalist] ask.

“Yah, yah. Fully ordered to shoot them. Whenever you see the poachers or any people during night-time we are ordered to shoot them.”

Killing poachers

Rhinos desperately need protection — that’s not even a discussion. Like many species of large herbivores, they’ve suffered from massive poaching, being hunted to extinction. The Western Black rhino is already extinct and things are looking bleak for all species of rhinos. To make things even worse, poachers (and the black market bringing the demand) have upped their game. Poachers nowadays use big guns, drones, and they’re ruthless.

Poachers hunt rhinos for their horn, which can get a lot of money on the black market. Image credits: Pixabay.

They come in for the kill, and quite often, threaten humans as well as animals. This is also what the Indian government is saying. They’ve made the rangers almost a military force – wearing khakis, trained, they are allowed to carry guns and even to use drones to spot poachers approaching. Now, nothing’s really unusual up to here. Rangers should be properly equipped to deal with threats, and they should be able to defend themselves. The questionable thing is how often they should be pulling the trigger. At one point, they were killing 2 people every month, which seems like a lot. Add in the fact that they’re almost never held responsible for the killings, and you see how the problem emerges.

So, is this what it comes down to? We have to kill people to protect endangered animals? We all agree poachers must be punished harshly, but is it right for a ranger to be judge, jury, and executioner? The director of the park, Dr Satyendra Singh, says that that question is devoid of meaning because rangers are very disciplined and never shoot on sight.

“First we warn them – who are you? But if they resort to firing we have to kill them. First we try to arrest them, so that we get the information, what are the linkages, who are others in the gang?”

If he’s right, which at the very least, the BBC seems to question, all you would need are some checks and balances to make sure rangers act responsibly and don’t cause unnecessary killings — in other words, that they shoot only when threatened. Which brings us to an even bigger problem…

Collateral damage

There isn’t much in the way of checks and balances.

Like many parts of India, the Kaziranga National Park is densely populated. People have been living in the area for centuries, and sometimes they just wanted inside the park. Sometimes, they’re in the proximity of animals; and sometimes, they get shot.

Basically, the park has a “no one gets in” policy.

“Kill the unwanted,” should be the guiding principle for the guards, the head of the park says. He adds that environmental crimes are worse than murder. “They erode,” he said, “the very root of existence of all civilizations on this earth silently.”

One of the most popular tourist activities at the Kaziranga National Park is the early morning mahout-guided elephant safari. Image credits: SeethaG.

He makes a strong case, especially considering that the park is the main touristic attractions in the area and one of the main income drivers. But while this does send a strong message to poachers, sometimes locals get caught in the crossfire — with disastrous consequences.

BBC tells the case of a local villager (Goanburah), reportedly caring for his cows, who was shot and killed after not realizing he ventured inside the park. They write:

“Goanburah had been looking after the family’s two cows. His father believes they strayed into the park and his son – who had severe learning difficulties – went in to try and find them. It is an easy mistake to make. There are no fences or signs marking the edge of the park, it just merges seamlessly into the surrounding countryside and fields. The park authorities say guards shot Goanburah inside the forest reserve when he did not respond to a warning.”

There’s no chance Goanburah was a poacher, especially as he was seriously disabled.

“He could barely do up his own trousers or his shoes,” his father says, “everyone knew him in the area because he was so disabled.”

A similar instance is told by a seven-year-old survivor. Akash Orang was shot in the leg. After a dozen surgeries, he can barely walk, and will likely never run again in his life.

“I was coming back from the shop. The forest guards were shouting, ‘Rhinoceros! Rhinoceros!'” He pauses. “Then they suddenly shot me.”

Accountability

At this point, this isn’t even about protecting the endangered species. When someone is shot (especially a disabled person and a seven-year-old), there should be an investigation and of course, some accountability. But there isn’t. The park says it’s not responsible for any investigations, and is generally unaware of who the alleged poachers are. Most of the time, the killed people are unidentified — which if you think about it, doesn’t make much sense. Your main interest is to protect the rhinos and identify the poacher network, so wouldn’t you want to know who the poachers are? Especially if people are living at the periphery of the park, you’d want to know who’s doing what.

Some other things also don’t add up with the way the Kaziranga administration is managing things. They want to expand the park and extend the protected area — which again, is a good thing. But due to their “no one gets in” policy, this means they will relocate several villages on the periphery, villagers who claim to be protecting the wildlife and providing environmental services.

Their response to the journalistic investigation was also highly questionable: they simply banned the BBC from the park for 5 years, for failing to submit the documentary to MoEFCC and Ministry of External Affairs for obligatory previewing “in order to remove any deviations, so as to achieve a balanced and accurate exposition of the theme”.

Since the crackdown commenced in 2013, rhino poaching has gone down drastically. You can’t argue with the results, at least so far. But is this a cost worth paying? I’d love to hear your opinions.

No safe haven in Africa: African rhinos are being relocated to Australia for protection against poachers

In most parts of Africa, rhinos have been hunted to extinction. Out of desperation, authorities have opted for an unlikely solution: they are relocating 80 rhinos from South Africa to safari parks in Australia. The rhinos are basically becoming refugees.

Photo by Harald Zimmer.

Rhino poaching is reaching a critical point. Since 2008 poachers have killed at least 5,940 African rhinos, according to statistics compiled by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). South Africa is hosting the largest population of rhinos in the world, but in recent years rhino numbers have been dwindling as a direct result of poaching. While they are trying to fight poaching on their home turf, African authorities have come up with a back-up plan: send some rhinos to Australia, where they are safe.

The Australian Rhino Project aims to create a small population of rhinos in Australia as a “biological backup”:

“We have the primary objective to establish a breeding herd of rhinoceros in Australia – a place of relative safety and comparable ecology to their native home – as an “insurance population” in the event of extinction of the species in South Africa,” the project’s page writes.

The first steps will be taken in May 2016, when six rhinos will be moved into quarantine in the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. They will spend two months there, before moving to another quarantine, in Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Australia, where they will spend another two months. After they are cleared, they will be released into Monarto Zoo’s safari park in Adelaide, South Australia. The park has an area of 10 square kilometres (3.9 sq mi) – it’s not the best, but at least the animals will be safe. As the project’s founder, Ray Dearborn, puts it:

“There is no safe place in Africa for rhinos today. They’ve become extinct pretty much from the top down to South Africa where probably 85 to 90 percent of the white and black southern rhinos that are left in the world.”

In the next four years, they plan to find new homes for 80 rhinos in total, but they are struggling with funding. The project receives no funding from government, and they rely completely on corporate and private support to achieve our goal of raising approximately $8 million. If you want to support them or just learn more about the project please check out the team’s website.

The future of one of the world’s planet most iconic creatures remains uncertain. Dearborn and his team want to make sure that even if bad comes to worse, future generations can still enjoy rhinos in the wild – even if it’s in Australia.

Suni at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

Only Six Northern White Rhinos left in the World

Suni, a 37-year-old northern white rhino and only the second male of his kind left in the world, died recently of natural causes in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy reserve in Kenya. After his death merely six other specimens are now alive that still carry the legacy of this subspecies.

Suni at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

Suni at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

Conservation efforts were heavily direct towards Suni, but now that the rhino is dead, all hope for the species lies with only one male and, of course, frozen sperm samples. All of the northern white rhino left in the world can only be find in captivity; the last wild specimen died long ago. Suni was the first northern white rhino ever to be born in captivity, the conservancy said in a statement. He was one of four northern whites transferred from the Dvur Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic to Ol Pejeta in 2009 as part of the “Last Chance to Survive” project.

Suni after arriving at Ol Pejeta in 2009.

Suni after arriving at Ol Pejeta in 2009.

The northern white rhino is one of two subspecies of the white rhino. The other subspecies, the southern white rhino, is estimated to number at about 20,000, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

A few years ago, ZME Science was saddened to announce the western black rhino became extinct. The northern white rhino seems to follow the same path at the hand of a common enemy – poachers. In fact, all African rhinos are under major threat from poachers, with some studies citing that wild rhinos could become extinct by 2020. It’s not the meat or the skin the poachers are after – their trophy is the rhino’s horn. Actually, this is what personally makes me the angriest. As it wasn’t enough poachers are killing threatened species without any breach of conscious, they’re doing it to supply a black market based on a whole load of mombo-jambo. All of the horns get shipped to south-east Asia where they’re grounded into a powder that’s thought to cure diseases such as cancer. The horn, made of a substance similar to human hair known as keratin, is more valuable by weight than gold ($65,000/kg). Of course, there isn’t a published study that remotely links rhino powder with anti-cancer activity.

Sudan and Najin, two of the remaining northern white rhinos, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

Sudan and Najin, two of the remaining northern white rhinos, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

Three northern white rhinos, Najin, Fatu and Sudan, remain at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. One northern white rhino remains at the Dvur Králové Zoo and two remain at the San Diego Zoo.

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South Africa: 1,000 rhinos poached – 50 % more than last year

Rhino

(c) Panda.org

The new year started with a glim of hope for environmentalists and animal rights activists all over the world, after China sent a strong message when it destroyed six tonnes of seized ivory. While the action may be righteous, the balance is still unfavorably tilted against endangered species. A new report published by the South African department of environmental affairs states that some 1,000 rhinos were poached in 2013, marking a 50% increase compared to the previous year.

Chasing fool’s gold

Africa’s elephants and rhinos are apparently at ever greater peril, as countries in Asia grow affluent an feed the demand for blood markets.While elephants are killed for their beautiful ivory, it’s quite disheartening to learn that rhinos are being decimated on account of superstition. Their horns are extremely valued in Chinese medicine, and are added as key ingredients for medicine against diseases affecting the liver, fever, even cancer and hangovers. At $65,000 a kg, rhino horn, typically turned into powder, is one of the most expensive black market product, more valuable than platinum, gold or cocaine.

Vietnam's economy has grown at a huge rate in the past few years. The number of multimillionaire people has grown by 150% in the past five years alone.

Vietnam’s economy has grown at a huge rate in the past few years. The number of multimillionaire people has grown by 150% in the past five years alone.

Unfortunately, it’s the most expensive placebo. No reliable study has been published so far that backs the therapeutic values of rhino horn. Not listening to reason, the Asian world seems to be keen on increasing its demand for the prized rhino horn. In 2013, 1,004 of the massive animals were illegally killed in South Africa, compared with 668 the previous year and 448 in 2011. In the past 40 years, 95% of the world’s rhino population has been wiped-out.

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Most of the killings took place at Kruger National Park, which lost 606 rhinos last year and 425 in 2012. Most poachers come from neighboring Mozambique, struck by extreme poverty and filled with many men ready to risk their lives for a few hundred dollars. The local government is desperately trying to fend them off, turning the rangers into war-equipped soldiers, employing drones and launching attacks themselves against suspected poacher rat-holes. Statistics tell us that their efforts, while valiant, do little to discourage the poachers. Already, some 37 rhinos have been poached in 2014 – according to an official body count.

 

 

Western Black Rhino

Western Black Rhino driven extinct by poachers

Western Black Rhino

Conservationists are prepared to declare the Western Black Rhino officially extinct soon, after poaching killed off the remainder of already scarce wild specimens scattered around the area of Cameroon. Until 2000, ten wild specimens were still roaming free, however prized by poachers for the animals’ horns, used in traditional medicine practice by the local populace, even these few survivors have succumbed.

“There were very limited anti-poaching efforts in place to save the animals, and anyone caught poaching was not sentenced, hence no deterrents were in place,” said Craig Hilton-Taylor of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

With these minimum anti-poaching measures in place, it becomes relatively evident how we’ve managed to come tot this situation. Of course that a poacher won’t think twice in engaging in such a dreadful action when the rewards are so great, and the risks are negligible – not even a day in jail!

There are currently only a few other specimens of the Western Black Rhino alive in captivity, held in zoos, however releasing some of them into the wild is considered extremely costly, while some experts believe it to be actually impossible. The Western Black Rhino is significantly distinct from genetics point of view  from other rhino species, they too also in danger.

At the turn of the century, there were around 100,000 Eastern Black Rhino roaming the continent of Africa. In the meantime, these numbers dropped to an all time low of 1,500 in the 1960’s. Incredible preservationist efforts, however, have managed to raise the count to 4,500 today, as a result of breeding programs. The Western Black Rhino wasn’t so lucky.

The Northern White Rhino is also expected to be scribbled on the extinct species soon, as the species left with only a few specimens in captivity, along with a few occasional rare sightings of some specimens in the wild.

“It is down as far as we know just to four semi-captive animals that have been moved from a zoo in the Czech Republic to a semi-wild situation on a ranch in Kenya,” said Hilton-Taylor, who manages the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of endangered species.

Here’s an old video story from National Geographic centered around the back then still endangered Western Black Rhino, and Northern White Rhino.

Rhino takes to the sky

In a bold and unconventional move, a critically endangered black rhino has been carried via helicopter over dangerous and rugged terrain, as part of the WWF‘s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project in South Africa.

 

The helicopter flight took around 10 minutes, and the animal didn’t suffer any physical damage during this whole operation, according to WWF. The animals are being moved this way in a desperate attempt to reduce pressure on existing reserves and reduce poaching; poaching and reduction of habitat have reduced black rhinos to a mere fraction of what they used to be just a few decades ago.

The purpose is to provide black rhinos with new territories so they can expand their fading numbers; this is a particularly tricky job, because black rhinos require more space and food than white rhinos, and are pretty pretentious. Depending on the type and age, a population of 50 black rhinos would require anywhere between 200 to 1,000 square kilometers of land.

So these majestic creatures seem to be doing fine at first in their new homes. Here you can see Dr. Jacques Flamand stroking the back of a rhino after administering the antidote to wake the animal up after this epic 1500 km journey (after the helicopter, the rhinos were also transported on land). Since the start of this program, some 120 specimens have been relocated.

“Previously rhinos were either transported by lorry over very difficult tracks, or airlifted in a net,” explained WWF’s project leader, Dr. Jacques Flamand. “This new procedure is gentler on the darted rhino because it shortens the time it has to be kept asleep with drugs, the respiration is not as compromised as it can be in a net and it avoids the need for travel in a crate over terrible tracks.” (Photo: Green Renaissance/WWF)

Via MNN