2019 State of the Rhino
Rhinos have been in the news a lot this year, and we’re glad to see them getting so much attention. After all, two of the world’s five rhino species could easily be lost in our lifetime. Rhinos across the globe are threatened by rampant poaching to feed illegal markets, by habitat loss, and by other factors ranging from inbreeding to invasive species.
Ten years ago, fewer than 21,000 rhinos roamed the Earth. Today, rhino numbers hover around 27,300 – a 30 percent increase over the past decade. But, shorter-term, and especially over the past 2 years, the global rhino population has seen a steady decline, dropping from a high of 29,000 in 2017 to 27,300 today.
In Africa, criminals killed nearly 900 rhinos last year. While this is a decrease from 3.7 rhinos lost per day in 2015, 2018 still saw 2.4 rhinos killed per day – or one rhino every 10 hours. And this reduction in losses is only possible because of enormous protection efforts; without it, rhinos would be in far worse shape.
When numbers from all five rhino species are combined, the total number of rhinos in the world has decreased over the last two years. Despite that, they have still increased 30% over the last decade.
The South African Department of Environmental Affairs announced that 318 rhinos have been poached in the first six months of 2019. There have been more than 9,000 rhinos poached across Africa over the last decade.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Rhino conservation has seen spectacular successes over the years.
Thanks to strict protection by government authorities in India and Nepal, the greater one-horned, or Indian, rhino has rebounded from fewer than 100 individuals to more than 3,600 today. And, beginning in 2009, IRF and our Indian Rhino Vision 2020 partners worked together to establish a new Indian rhino population in Assam’s Manas National Park. Eighteen animals have been born in the park, and we’ve just recorded the second birth for 2019, which brings the population to 36 animals.
The Government of South Africa and dedicated conservationists teamed up to bring the southern white rhino back from fewer than 50 individuals in the early 1900s to roughly 18,000 today – though that population has declined over the past 2 years because of poaching. Unfortunately, white rhinos are seeing higher poaching levels than black rhinos, particularly in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, largely because they generally live in more open habitats where they are easier to target. Sadly, from 2012 to 2017, the poaching scourge led to a 15% decrease in white rhino numbers.
Africa’s other rhino species, the black rhino, is slowly coming back from horrendous losses. By 1993, fewer than 2,300 rhinos remained from populations of more than 65,000 in the 1970s. Today, black rhino numbers hover around 5,500 animals. They are also being hard-hit by poaching, but so far, are holding their own.
Moving to Indonesia, fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos remain, and because it has declined more than 70 percent in the past 20 years, the species is likely the most endangered large mammal on Earth. Three small, isolated populations exist on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, plus a tiny handful of animals in Indonesian Borneo. Remaining populations are heavily guarded by anti-poaching units, but despite protection, numbers continue to decline. In 2018, the Government of Indonesia developed a Sumatran Rhino Emergency Action Plan, and in 2018, IRF and partners formed the Sumatran Rhino Rescue project, with plans to rescue rhinos and bring those with reproductive potential into large, semi-natural breeding and research facilities like the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary to increase population numbers.
Javan rhinos, numbering no more than 72 animals* (*Number updated from 68 as of 12_06_2019), are found only in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park, where they are heavily protected. There has been no poaching in Ujung Kulon in more than 25 years. Because of this, their population has been slowly but steadily increasing and IRF is working with local partner YABI to create even more suitable habitat for them, so their population can continue to grow.
CITES 18th Conference of the Parties
On the international scene, In August, representatives from nearly every country in the world met in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss trade issues pertaining not only to charismatic species like rhinos and elephants, but also species ranging from otters to sturgeons to coral to a variety of plants. Three rhino proposals were brought to the parties: (1) by Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) to allow the country unrestricted international commercial trade in its specimens of white rhino, their horn and products. The Parties rejected the proposal 202-25, with seven abstentions; (2) by Namibia to allow the country to conduct live trade in southern white rhinos to appropriate destinations. The proposal was rejected 82-29; and (3) by South Africa to allow it to change its trophy hunting system for black rhinos, requesting the hunting quota be increased from five adult males to a total number of adult males not exceeding 0.5% of its total black rhino population. The Parties approved the proposal, with amendments.
Strides in Assisted Reproductive Technology
Assisted Reproductive Technology may, one day, play a vital role in securing the future for rhino populations. In September, European scientists recovered eggs from the last female (non-reproductive) northern white rhino females, and successfully fertilized them with frozen-thawed sperm from two deceased northern white rhino bulls. Two of the eggs grew to early stage embryos and have been frozen to be later implanted into a southern white rhino surrogate. This was followed by the recovery of one egg from the last Sumatran rhino in Sabah, Malaysia, just last week, which hopefully can be matured and frozen.
In July, US scientists produced a southern white rhino calf using frozen semen and artificial insemination (AI). And in May, another group of US scientists hormonally induced ovulation in a greater one-horned rhino and used AI to produce a calf.
We follow and applaud these developments with great interest, while also noting the importance of keeping these accomplishments in perspective, particularly for a subspecies that is functionally extinct, such as the northern white rhino. No species has ever been saved using ART alone, and attempting to use ART to try to ‘bring back’ any subspecies or species is a complex, highly difficult endeavor. These recent development are but the first steps on a long, long journey.
There is no roadmap for ensuring the survival of rhino species, and there is more work than we can ever accomplish in our lifetime. However working together with our partners, we can achieve our goals. We applaud everyone’s commitment to ensuring that all five rhino species survive for future generations. IRF takes the approach of maximizing options and minimizing regrets, tackling the challenges facing rhinos using multi-faceted strategies. For all five rhino species, the highest priorities are also the most basic: bolstering anti-poaching activities or “boots on the ground”, maintaining intensive monitoring and active management of wild populations, and working with local communities. The problem, however, is no longer just about conservation. Some countries have elevated rhino crimes to the highest levels, commensurate with terrorism. As such, we also need to intensify international pressure on range country governments to enforce their wildlife crime laws and commitments to international treaties and foster more effective international collaboration on investigations to address the entire criminal supply chain, particularly in Asia.
All of us at the IRF appreciate your commitment to rhinos, and your belief in our work. Thank you!