Sunday, November 17, 2013

What the extinction of the western black rhino should mean to you

Despite the recent increase in social media concerning the extinction of the western black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis longipes, the subspecies was actually declared extinct in 2011, and the last sighting of wild individuals all the way back in 2001. However, the lesson we can learn from the plight of the western black rhino, as well as all other subspecies and species of rhino, is an extremely important one.

The demise of the worldwide rhino population, regardless of range or species, is intrinsically tied to the use of the animal’s horns in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Although the TCM trade has largely diminished, with several bans restricting the import of rhinoceros products into Middle Eastern and Eastern Asian countries, poachers still manage toslaughter wild rhinos at an astonishing, not to mention growing, rate.

The situation of the rhino is the same the world over – although some species are more abundant than others, no species is truly common, and two of the six* living species are critically endangered: the Indonesian Javan rhinoceros Rhinoceros sondaicus sondaicus is limited to the last 50 or so members of its subspecies, and the Vietnamese Javan rhino R. s. annamiticus was declared extinct in 2011 as well. The next most common rhino species, the Sumatran Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, has a wild population of about 200 individuals.

*Although most resources cite five rhinoceros species (black, white, Sumatran, Javan, and Indian), the northern and southern subspecies of white rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum have been found to be two distinct species.

The sadness associated with the extinction of a species, especially ones which have such an important ecological role, as well as worldwide recognition and popular appeal, is a sadness largely associated with the regret of not saving a species which the opportunity is present. We, as a species, as doing a fair amount to save the world’s remaining rhinoceros populations, but we truly need to do more if we wish to truly save these animals. Of course, as any biologist will tell you,  there are a myriad of species out there which are much smaller or lesser known than any rhinoceros species and which require much more of our attention. But no species deserves to be loosed to the whims of extinction in a rapidly changing world.

The fate of rhinoceros populations worldwide lies in our hands.
When the first historical anthropogenic extinctions occurred, the very notion of extinction was an alien thought. The fact that an entire species could be wiped out was beyond comprehension in a world in which an almighty power had personally created each and every species. By the time scientific minds had pieced together why, for example, no one had seen a dodo in years, it was far too late to do anything about it. When concern began over the fate of the western black rhinoceros, it was likewise already too late. An aerial survey tallied just 10 remaining individuals in northern Cameroon, and the odds of those individuals finding one another and breeding the population back into health were infinitesimally small. It is frustrating to admit when something natural is beyond any help, but, with our potential and the resources available to us, this does not have to be the only option. We can still work to save the world’s rhino species, and if we are truly concerned for their well-being, there is nothing to stop us from protecting them.

The earth is a cruel place, and all species eventually go extinct. What separates us, now in the 21st century, from those Portuguese and Dutch explorers who killed and ate all that they discovered, is that we have the awareness and the power to change the destiny of another species. Now, more than ever, we need to realize this potential and be responsible for the planet we are dismantling. What happened to the western black rhino is a reason to pity, but more than anything it is a reason to take action.

To find out more about rhinoceros conservation and how we can all help, visit these pages:

John R. Platt wrote a very detailed synopsis of the history of the western black rhinoceros, including its extinction. Check it out here:

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