Good news! After nearing extinction, the numbers of the African black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) are finally increasing.
Due to persistent conservation efforts, the number of these critically endangered species grew across Africa from 4,845 in 2012 to 5,630 in 2018 -– and is expected to further increase in the next five years.
“These developments for African rhinos show the changes that can be achieved through committed conservation action,” Dr. Jane Smart, global director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Biodiversity Conservation Group, said in a statement.
While a 2.5-percent annual increase may not seem large, Dr. Andrew Terry, director of conservation and policy at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), lauded it as “a great achievement, given the scale of the challenge.”
Figures show that saving a species from extinction is no easy feat.
According to Save the Rhino Foundation, in the last decade alone, over 8,000 rhinos have been poached. In 2015, the deaths peaked with a minimum of 1,349 rhinos killed — or an average of 3.7 rhinos daily.
In 2018, however, the fatalities declined to about 892 rhinos. While the number of continues to fall, Save the Rhino Foundation still estimates one rhino dying at the hands of a poacher every 10 hours.
“A key lesson of the gradually improving status of African rhinos is that conservation works. We know what needs to be done, and must expand conservation action worldwide to continue to reverse the decline to these and other threatened species,” Dr. Jon Paul Rodríguez, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, said.
According to IUCN, conservation efforts include successful population management measures, such as arduously moving selected rhinos from established populations to new locations to keep populations productive and increase the species’ range.
“The recent Red List assessment of the status of rhinos reveals the degree to which we have had to isolate them in order to conserve them. Movement is restricted to increasingly smaller enclaves, often under near militarized conditions. We intensively manage all aspects of their biology,” said Dr. Thomas E. Lacher, Jr., a professor of Ecology and Conservation Biology at Texas A&M University.
Dr. Richard Emslie, Red List authority coordinator for the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group, also attributed the downward trend to the strict law enforcement implemented by some states.
“With the involvement of transnational organized crime in poaching, rhino crimes are not just wildlife crimes. A number of range states are to be commended for their efforts, elevating rhino crimes to a higher level and taking a more ‘whole of government’ approach to combat the organised crime behind the poaching,” Emslie said.
Emslie, however, noted that “continued expenditure and efforts will be necessary” to maintain the progress.
“Even though black rhinos remain at high risk, it’s encouraging to see that their population has started to regrow,” Dr. M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International, said in a statement.
The black rhino has three subspecies. After a significant increase in its population, the southwestern black rhino is now categorized as “near threatened” from “vulnerable.” Meanwhile, the other two surviving subspecies, the southeastern and eastern, both remain “critically endangered”
While all three subspecies are slowly increasing, recovery, however, remains dependent on the continued conservation efforts.
Sanjayan continued: “Now, we must double down on the critical conservation work that governments and local communities have undertaken in recent years. Together, we can stop the tragedy of wildlife poaching and bring black rhinos back from the brink of extinction.”
The hopeful news came exactly two years after the world bid farewell to Sudan, the planet’s very last male northern white rhino.
Sudan is survived by two females, Najin and Fatu — the last of their species in the planet. Both live under constant surveillance in Kenya and are guarded by rangers 24 hours a day.
The northern white rhino subspecies rapidly dwindled from over 2,000 in 1960 to only 15 by 1984. The population was largely wiped out by poachers participating in the illegal horn trade.
The population of the other white rhino subspecies, the southern white rhino, on the other hand, decreased by 15 percent. According to IUCN, the population dipped from an estimated 21,300 in 2012 to 18,000 in 2017.
“It is evident that there is no room for complacency as poaching and illegal trade remain acute threats,” Grethel Aguilar, acting director general of IUCN, said in a statement.
“It is essential that the ongoing anti-poaching measures and intensive, proactive population management continue, with support from national and international actors,” she added.
Unfortunately, the demand for the rhino horns remains insatiable in the black market, where they are heftily priced. Poaching remains to be the greatest threat of rhinoceroses.
According to IUCN, around half of white rhinos and close to 40% of black rhinos live in a privately or community managed land. Very few of the species are found outside national parks and reserves.
IUCN warned that the costs of keeping rhinos safe have risen greatly and live sale prices have significantly decreased over the last decade, reducing incentives for private landowners and communities to keep rhinos.
Experts are also concerned that the ceased global tourism amid the coronavirus crisis could impact the needed resources for the conservation operations of private, commercial and state national parks, and other wildlife reserves.
Sean T. O’Brien, president and CEO of Nature Serve, however, reminded that “protecting the planet's precious biodiversity has never been more important. Every day, the obstacles to saving native species from extinction and preserving ecosystems are growing.”
“We must seek out opportunities to bring together data, science, and technology to help solve one of the scariest environmental challenges of our time, the mass extinction of untold numbers of species,” O’Brien said.