/ 22 September 2023

Saving the rhino is more than an emotional quest

Two white rhino
The Hawks have arrested latest suspect in R9 million rhino horn theft from a stockpile facility in North West (Brent Stirton and African Parks)

When one thinks of Africa, there are certain iconic animals that spring to mind amid the vast diversity of its wildlife. The tusks and ears of an African elephant, the spindly legs and elegant neck of a giraffe, and above all, the grey bulk and distinctive horn of a rhinoceros.

Why do we care so much about the plight of the rhino and their very real risk of extinction? There are, after all, many other far more interesting and attractive animal species also facing an ongoing challenge for survival. 

As we commemorate World Rhino Day on 22 September, it’s an apt time to reflect on the true conservation value of rhinoceros in our natural ecosystems and why it really is important to care about whether these animals flourish or fade into the history books.

The outlook is deeply concerning

It’s apparent to anyone who follows conservation news that the remaining wild rhino populations in Africa and Asia are under extreme stress from threats of poaching for their horns, habitat loss and fragmentation. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, an estimated 500 000 rhino roamed Africa and Asia. Today, about 27 000 remain in the wild. 

The Javan and Sumatran rhino each number fewer than 100 individuals, and the northern white rhino has only two females that remain, making it functionally extinct.

Faring better, for now, is the southern white rhino, at about 15 000 remaining, but they are classified as near threatened, with numbers declining across existing strongholds. Without active conservation measures and intervention, the future for the rhino is bleak. Yet there is a compelling argument to be made to ensure the survival of this species.

Rhino play a crucial role in the ecosystem

Rhino are a sentinel species, both the harbinger of environmental destruction and equally, when successfully rewilded into rehabilitated spaces, the symbol of a conservation success story. 

They are typically the first species to be poached out of natural systems, thereby acting as a warning alarm for further degradation of an area. But they are also typically the last species to be reintroduced into an area that has been well managed and secured, signalling a conservation success and renewed hope.

It is crucial to have enough safe spaces for the species to inhabit so that they can play their part in the ecosystem. White rhino are mega-herbivores that provide a vital link in the conservation chain. They shape grasslands through grazing, which positively impacts nutrient cycling, reduces the rate at which fires can spread, and they create natural water holes that are beneficial for other species, providing a habitat and water for many other animals. 

They contribute to storing carbon by maintaining the savanna ecosystem which is a major carbon sink — savannas store about 30% of the world’s terrestrial carbon, mostly in the soil. By grazing on grasses and browsing on shrubs, rhino prevent woody or brush encroachment, which if left to proliferate reduces the carbon storage capacity of savannas.

Where rhino are present within an ecosystem, there is an increase in fauna and flora diversity. Biodiversity is particularly important for maintaining the resilience and adaptability of ecosystems to climate change. Rhino are a keystone species — they have a disproportionate impact on their environment and influence many other species. Returning rhino to a protected area signals successful conservation across a large landscape that is well managed for the benefit of all species in that ecosystem. And yes, that includes humans.

People and animals co-existing

It’s a great irony that while people constitute the greatest threat to any rhino population, rhino can be a positive influence in the lives of the people who live around the protected areas they inhabit. Well-managed protected areas are a drawcard for tourism, generating more revenue for local communities and improving livelihoods, and the presence of rhino in these areas adds to the attraction of a protected area for tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of these animals. 

When conservation is owned by communities, protected areas are recognised as a viable land use model that delivers benefits to them. This enhances the financial sustainability of their areas, and a conservation-led economy can flourish. The presence of rhino in a protected area can directly and indirectly help create jobs, stimulate local micro-enterprise development and ultimately, improve livelihoods in the region.

A sound community development strategy is needed to make sure this happens. Those entrusted with the management of protected areas must partner with communities to understand their needs and ensure that they directly benefit from these areas under conservation. These benefits include the same things we all want for ourselves and families — education, health services, and jobs. 

Successful partnerships must ensure that the communities derive economic benefits from the protected areas, creating a conservation-led economy through employment and other conservation-positive enterprises.

The work lies ahead

Quite apart from the emotional lure of saving a noble species, there are also sound ecological and climate-related reasons for saving the rhino. African Parks has recently embarked on an ambitious project to rewild 2 000 southern white rhino into protected areas across Africa — our best shot yet to supplement existing populations, and to create new populations, strategically, across the African continent. 

Rewilding the 2 000 rhino is far more significant than just the species — it demands successful conservation across multiple large landscapes that are well managed for the benefit of all species in that system. The importance of these iconic animals in the ecosystems is indisputable. It is incumbent on us to do what we can to protect the species and secure their future.

Donovan Jooste is the rhino rewilding project manager at African Parks.