Are These Wild Ideas Our Last Hope for Saving Africa’s Rhinos?

This post by Adam Welz was originally published on Ensia.com, a magazine that highlights international environmental solutions in action, and is republished here according to a content-sharing agreement.

In 1909, after completing his second term as U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt led an ambitious expedition across east Africa to shoot specimens for America’s most famous museums. Along with his son Kermit and a handful of naturalists, he collected thousands of animals — everything from elephants to shrews, large raptors to tiny songbirds. The expedition’s bounty was preserved in 4 tons of salt and carried across vast savannas by large crews of African porters, some of whom died along the way.

The ultimate prize of Roosevelt’s epic scientific safari was the Nile rhinoceros, a mysterious type of square-lipped rhino found along the Upper Nile in the regions today called southern South Sudan and northern Uganda. Zoologists noted that it was remarkably similar to the so-called white rhinoceros of southern Africa but smaller, and that it was separated from the southern white by thousands of miles. Were Nile and white rhinos the same species? Experts couldn’t agree.

Teddy and Kermit shot only nine Nile rhinos between them, though they saw tens more. “Too little is known about these northern square-mouthed rhino for us to be sure that they are not lingering slowly towards extinction,” wrote Roosevelt. “We were not willing to kill any merely for trophies.”

We’re charging headlong into an era in which new technology may allow us to save species once considered doomed, but also in which threats come in previously unimaginable forms. Roosevelt’s caution was warranted: The Nile rhino, having suffered decades of trophy hunting and poaching, is on the very edge of extinction. Now often called the northern white rhino, it has only five individuals left, all in captivity, and none able to breed. The southern white rhino is under withering assault by poachers — although it’s the most numerous of the world’s rhino species, with perhaps 20,000 remaining, conservationists conservatively estimate that if killing continues to increase at current rates, all wild southern whites could be gone within 12 years.

The high-profile plight of these closely related species has brought forth a bewildering array of proposed solutions, many of which trigger serious ethical dilemmas, risk unintended and troubling consequences, or rely on unproven technology. We’re charging headlong into an era in which new technology may allow us to save species once considered doomed, but also in which threats come in previously unimaginable forms that mainstream wildlife protectors cannot handle.

 

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