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Fight for survival

Hunted for their horns for traditional medicine, rhinos need a cure of their own

Fall 2017 | By Steve Pomplun

rhino with birds
Photo by Joel Herzog

If there’s a conservation challenge that tests the boundaries of hope, it might be the effort to save rhinos.

Of the five rhinoceros species, three are listed as “critically endangered,” one is “near-threatened” and the other is “vulnerable.” Consider the numbers: the white rhino population in southern Africa stands at about 20,000. Black rhinos, found in the same region, hover around 5,000 (a dramatic decline from an estimated 70,000 animals in 1970).

The situation is even worse for the three Asian species. The greater one-horned rhino, native to India, numbers 3,500 or so. In Indonesia, fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos remain, and the Javan rhino is down to about 60, existing in only one national park.

rhino populations

While habitat loss and fragmentation and other environmental factors harm all of these species, poaching is by far the biggest immediate threat.

“The poaching crisis is putting so much pressure on us to protect the remaining populations that everything else becomes secondary,” says CeCe Sieffert, deputy director of the International Rhino Foundation and a 2011 alumna of the Nelson Institute’s Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development master’s degree program.

Sieffert says a thriving illegal market for rhino horn drives the poaching of all five species. Vietnam is the largest market; powdered horn is sought as a supposed cure for everything from cancer to hangovers, and owning it is seen as a status symbol. In China, another significant market, buyers seek rhino horn for use in traditional medicines.

The International Rhino Foundation (IRF), based in Strasburg, Virginia, works with government and conservation organizations in those regions to address the demand side of the equation and deter rhino horn sales. For example, the group supports an organization in Vietnam to increase reporting and prosecution of illegal wildlife transactions and change behaviors driving the demand.

“We’ve learned that high-visibility prosecutions are an effective deterrent to the trade in rhino horn,” Sieffert explains.

Shrinking these markets will eventually help. But if the animals are to survive, Sieffert says stopping poachers in the field is the most urgent issue.

“Changing attitudes toward rhino horn consumption is important, but it won’t do much good unless we can ensure that poachers don’t decimate populations in the meantime,” she says.

In Africa, the most recent spike in poaching began in 2008, and the problem has been increasing exponentially ever since. In 2015, more than 1,342 rhinos were killed – approximately one every 8 hours. The numbers are starting to level off in South Africa, home to the largest rhino populations in the world, but only because poaching is spilling over into neighboring countries like Zimbabwe and Namibia. Conservationists fear that rhino mortality may soon exceed the birth rate in Africa unless more significant gains are made.

The fight to save rhinos has had to become increasingly sophisticated to keep pace with international organized crime networks that are funding, arming and training poaching teams and coordinating a global trafficking and black market syndicate.

In the face of these growing challenges, IRF has focused on ensuring that rhino populations are protected and scientifically managed to safeguard their survival. One project sponsors translocation programs in which animals are moved to safer locations, away from the worst poaching activities. In addition to providing securer grounds, the goal is to start new populations and increase genetic diversity. A three-year-old effort to relocate 38 black rhinos from South Africa and Zimbabwe to a reserve in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, for example, is showing early signs of success, with three births so far.

But the foundation also focuses on tightening the screws on poachers. IRF coordinates and funds training for armed anti-poaching patrols, which include “rhino dogs” trained to track and sometimes attack poachers; community monitoring programs that involve and reward local people for information; investigation and forensics; and other law enforcement and prevention programs.

It’s a big job, and Sieffert plays a major role on IRF’s small staff, touching every aspect of running a conservation organization – from guiding strategy to raising funds and coordinating with partners in the field to make sure investments are being used effectively.

Sieffert previously worked for the World Wildlife Fund, specializing in wildlife trafficking and community based conservation programs.

“I love animals, and I was excited about IRF specifically because its mission is focused on conserving the five rhino species and benefitting people who live in proximity to the animals,” she says.

Still, the numbers don’t lie. Rhinos are in big trouble, and while the African and Indian populations have slightly improved over the past two decades, the threats are relentless. But Sieffert fights on and remains hopeful.

“There are certainly days when I worry whether we’re going to lose species in the near future, but I draw inspiration from the people and organizations we support,” Sieffert says. “I think about rangers in South Africa who are on high alert on nights with full moons – they call them ‘poachers’ moons’ – and I admire their dedication and do all that I can to support them. I don’t want to give up hope for them, or for the magnificent species we’re fighting to protect.”

“I also draw inspiration from successful conservation interventions from the past – the California condor and scimitar-horned oryx are two that come to mind,” Sieffert continues. “If those animals can be pulled from the brink of extinction, I have to believe that there’s hope for the rhinos as well.”

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