Sculptors of the bush

Rhinos play a vital role in the broader ecosystem. (supplied)

Rhinos play a vital role in the broader ecosystem. (supplied)

If they were simply quietly extracted from the bush, would anybody but the tourist anxious to see the Big Five notice?

Yes, says Chris Galliers, rhino initiative co-ordinator for the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, the absence of rhino would be noticed by other species for whom they landscape the bush: “The rhino’s function in the ecosystem is often for the benefit of other species, so in effect they are a keystone species.”

A keystone species is one that has a disproportionate effect on the environment or habitat.

“White rhino ‘farm’ grazing areas.They have preferred grazing areas usually determined by species composition and nutritional value (for example, around termite mounds) where they keep the grass grazed to a certain height.

“These areas thus provide perfect grass heights, which are preferred by your short grass grazers such as wildebeest.”

This effect cannot be replicated by other grazing species, as Matthew Waldram found in his 2005 master’s thesis, The ecological effects of grazing by the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum) at a landscape scale.

“White rhino had a large influence on controlling grass biomass in Hluhluwe, a high rainfall mesic savannah,” he noted, and when white rhino were removed the character of the savannah changed.

The white rhino can also be classified as an indicator species, Galliers says: “Their health and well-being could potentially indicate the health and wellbeing of other grazers as well as the ecosystem having the potential for the introduction of other grazing species.”

Similarly the browsing black rhino is an indicator of the health of a habitat for other species too.

“Rhinos — especially black rhinos — have historically inhabited a wide variety of habitats, from deserts to forests, and as such are able to tolerate a wide habitat envelope,” says Kirsty Brebner, rhino project manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

“In South Africa, until the recent poaching upsurge, their range was actually expanding as the private sector invested in rhinos, and because of focused efforts to increase their distribution.”

Although both species breed best in natural habitats, the white rhino is content as long as it has access to decent quality grass, so they can survive in areas that have previously been farmed. However, black rhinos are a bit more fussy; they require space and adequate browse (from leafy trees and bushes).

“One cannot have black rhinos at the same density as you do with white rhinos,” says Galliers.

Wildlife trade
“Currently they are also an indicator species in terms of indicating levels of wildlife trade and are reflective of our ability to prevent (or not) illegal wildlife utilisation and trade, especially international trade,” says Galliers.

They are a brand, of sorts, thanks to their unhappy situation: the rhino “brand” is being used globally to raise awareness as well as funds, and to promote support for conservation globally.

Dr Richard Emslie, scientific officer for the African Rhino Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has another term for the rhino.

He says the rhino is a flagship species, which indicates our ability to effectively conserve the natural world: “If we can’t get it right with rhino, what’s next?” he asks.

“But if we can succeed with rhino, if we can preserve the large spaces they need and if rhinos help ensure this land-use is economically better than any other land use, well, then a whole lot of other species can be protected along with the rhino by protecting it and its habitats.”

But if we are to succeed, there’s going to be a huge need for co-operation.

“It is absolutely essential that NGOs and NPOs communicate regularly to ensure that efforts are not duplicated and valuable resources wasted,” says Galliers.

“Situations surrounding rhino poaching can be extremely complicated and it is a given that because there is no single intervention that will stop poaching; so too is there no single organisation that will be able to cover every approach required to reduce rhino poaching.

“By working together each organisation is able to focus on its strengths, and by also pooling resources, a lot more can be achieved in a shorter period of time.”

The same level of co-operation needs to be developed between private entities and state bodies.

Galliers points out that many state entities “lack sufficient resources, whether this is human capacity, networks or finances, so the need to work together is vital. It is especially important because they carry a legal mandate and are enforcers of the law.”

He makes the point that NGOs have expertise in areas that the state does not necessarily have.

“What is coming out is that the ability of NGOs to respond to a given situation is generally faster than a state entity, which usually has longer decision-making chains.

“This could end up hampering much-needed and sometimes urgent action on the ground. But it seems that level of co-operation is developing in the crucible of the current crisis.

"There are many good examples where there are working relationships between NGOs, the state and corporates. Trust in these collaborative efforts is essential and can often revolve around an individual relationship that makes it a success or not.”

Ancient survivors
Rhino ancestors have been around for aeons — since about 50-million years ago, and have taken many forms, among them the wildly impressive Elasmotherium, also known as the giant rhinoceros, which stood 2m tall, was 5m long and weighed around five tons.

The lineages that produced our modern African rhino species diverged a mere one and a half million years back.

One of the other three species still hanging on — just barely — is much older than that. The Sumatran rhino is about 15-million years old.

A close relative of the woolly rhinoceros, which thundered across the snowy plains of Europe until about 100 000 years ago, the Sumatran rhino was once widespread in South-East Asia, but is now down to an incredibly parlous less than 100 individuals with almost all animals in three Indonesian National Parks.

The smaller Javan rhino is in an even worse state, confined to a single population of 35 to 45 that has been stagnating and urgently needs translocations to set up a second population.

The Indian rhino, which like the Javan has a single horn, is by contrast in the pound seats, with 3 340 individuals in the wild in India (mainly Assam and West Bengal) and Nepal and numbers continuing to increase.

However, like all of the other four species, it is threatened by poaching with poaching increasing in Assam over the last two years.

Almost all the remaining white (99%) and black (96%) rhinos can be found in four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

The black rhino is doing a bit better having doubled from its low of 2 410 in 1995 to 5 080 by the start of 2013. Continentally the white rhino has increased to 20 430.

However, if the current escalation in poaching continues then the tipping point (where deaths will start to exceed births) will be reached by 2014 to 2016 depending on underlying growth rates.

This article forms part of a supplement paid for by Nedbank. Contents and photographs were supplied and signed off by Nedbank