A Tale of Two Rhinos

By Brendan Moyle 04/11/2013

One of the challenges in modern conservation is agreeing on what conservation is.  There is a widely held belief that conservation is about reserves, it’s about protecting wildlife and it’s about banning their use. But most wildlife doesn’t live in reserves.  Many endangered species are in developing countries. They don’t have a lot of resources to put into conservation. Corruption and weak institutions make it harder.


What this means is porting over a Western conservation management strategy to other countries hasn’t worked out so well. One might even argue that it doesn’t even work so well in NZ. We can’t conjure up enough resources to control the invasive pests that ravage our native ecosystems. Developing countries struggle to treat conservation as a money sink.

In practice, conservation means working with people with diverse values.  They won’t agree on what conservation means. For Inuit in Canada, conservation means being able to co-manage polar bears and hunt some. It works. Polar bear numbers have trended upwards. In Papua New Guinea, the estuarine crocodile is sustainably harvested. It works. Numbers have risen under this regime. This is a place where reserves and enforcement are to put diplomatically, challenging to implement. The industry and the local villagers agree on the need to conserve crocodiles, basically because they’re worth money. That works to curtail poaching and enhance habitat.

This conflict between what some people think conservation is, and what it actually is, is tragically illustrated with the two rhino species. The black rhino Diceros bicornis used to be abundant, with a range that extended up into the horn of Africa. There was still an estimated 60,000 black rhinos in 1960. Numbers have collapsed despite an international trade ban in 1976 and the use of an orthodox conservation approach.

Trends in Rhino Populations
Trends in Rhino Populations

Source: Michael ‘tSas-Rolfes

The white rhino has undergone the reverse trend (up until very recently). From very low numbers in the 1960s, numbers of white rhinos have overtaken black. The difference was a more encompassing conservation approach. There was a greater willingness to undertake translocations. Management was shared between the state, local communities and private owners.  In South Africa, 25% of the white rhinos are privately owned.  This included trophy hunting.  Again, while not everyone agrees that hunting has a place in conservation, and many find it abhorrent, the result is more rhinos.

The reason rhinos are in decline is poaching. This is now at catastrophic levels. Two to three rhinos on average, are killed each day. 2013 could see 1000 rhinos killed by poachers. Private game parks in South Africa are considering getting out of rhinos completely because of the security risks and costs.

The reason rhinos are poached are for their horns. The horns are largely keratin and grow back. This is partly why the dehorning experiments started in 1989 (with Namibia) failed. Nonetheless, as Biggs et al (2013) argue in the journal Science [1], the economics of farming rhinos stacks up well. Horn can be humanely and regularly shaved off the animal. This would get 8 times as much horn as a one off killing by a poacher. Here is a product we can supply, whose demand has remained resolutely high despite the trade-bans, without having to kill any rhinos. It’s worth debating if the current strategy is delivering what we want for rhinos, and whether trying something new is warranted.

[1] Biggs, D., Courchamp, F., Martin, R., Possingham, H. P. Legal Trade of Africa’s Rhino HornsScience 339 1038-1039 (2013).