Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Goodbye Western Black Rhino: A Conservation Failure

Over the summer I posted about the recovery of the Arabian Oryx and how refreshing it was to see a conservation success story. Since then I started studying conservation biology, in particular the extinction of species in one of my classes this semester. While it was great to be able to talk about conservation in positive terms with the oryx, we are once again confronted with the loss of a species to extinction. A subspecies of Black Rhinoceros, the Western Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes) was declared extinct in early November, having last been seen in the wild in 2006.

A Black Rhino in Africa's Ngorongo Crater.
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Flikr:farmgirl
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the Black Rhino (overall) was first listed as endangered in 1986, it has remained on the list transitioning to critically endangered in 1996. Various rhinoceros species are threatened by poaching because their horns are extremely valuable for ornamental reasons, in addition to its use in traditional Chinese medicine. Demand for rhino horn, compounded by the rarity of the animal and upheaval in its native range has caused the cost to increase on the black market. 

The latest update to the IUCN's Red List shows that 25% of mammals are at risk of extinction. Though the Western Black Rhino is already lost, there are other species of rhino that are also facing extinction including the Northern White Rhino (which may already be extinct in the wild,) and the Javan Rhino. In a statement chair of the IUCN species survival commission, Simon Stuart said:
"In the case of the western black rhino and the northern white rhino the situation could have had very different results if the suggested conservation measures had been implemented. These measures must be strengthened now, specifically managing habitats in order to improve performance and prevent other rhinos from facing extinction." 
In my extinction of species class we've been talking a lot about what motivates people to undertake conservation efforts. I would have thought that a species as charismatic as the rhino would have garnered a lot of public support either through funds or volunteers to implement the necessary conservation measures. Losing large mammals like rhinos should in my mind be a wake up call for everyone that we need to take conservation seriously or we will lose these species. However, I see a problem in the fact that what we lost with the Western Black Rhino was a subspecies of Black Rhino. I feel like people can look at that fact and think, well we've got other rhinos so its not such a big deal.

I've been thinking about conservation a lot in the last few months, but unfortunately I think I still have more questions than answers. One of the biggest issues that I've been struggling with is responsibility. Who should be responsible for species conservation? Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seem to be the most effective, but there are so many factors that have to be reconciled including making sure that people in the countries where the species we want to protect live aren't detrimentally impacted by conservation efforts.

The successful recovery of the Arabian Oryx and the loss of the Western Black Rhino can both serve as a reminder that Earth's biodiversity isn't stagnant. Human activities have a direct impact for better or for worse, and no matter what type of management is undertaken or policy put into place everything we do will have some kind of outcome.

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