Before you press delete and pass on reading this blog, I'm going to tell you that this is a story of hopeful possibilities. But it starts with a terrible tragedy, one that could well be repeated if we don't all do our part to stop it.
This week the planet lost the last male northern white rhino, known as 'Sudan'. Sudan lived to a grand old age for a rhino, 45 years, and spent many of his years at a refuge that took immensely good care of him, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. He didn't die at the hands of poachers, with his horn hacked off, as many other rhinos have in the last decade. With only two female northern white rhinos left now, the only option to save this subspecies of white rhino is IVF. Bringing this subspecies back from the brink is possible, but it's going to be very, very costly and require a large amount of expertise.
Photo: Sudan, the last male northern white rhino (photo credit: helpingrhinos.org)
Two other rhino species are close on the heels of the northern white rhino in terms of their numbers being so low as to be almost unrecoverable - the Sumatran and Javan rhinos, both located in very fragmented habitats in South East Asia. You might remember a few years ago when it was reported that the last rhino in Vietnam had gone extinct? Well, that was the second last population of Javan rhinos on earth. Now there is only one small population of about 67 animals located in a single national park in Java, Indonesia. Life is very, very precarious for rhinos in the world today.
Photo: Javan Rhino. Stephen Belcher photography from WWF
At the time I remember thinking that such an epic loss to the planet of Vietnam's last rhino going extinct surely must wake people and stir up some real action for rhinos. But the opposite seemed to happen. It was actually around the same time that we started to see a huge new demand for rhino horn coming from predominantly Vietnam, and the rhinos of Africa became seriously under fire from a new market for their horn. I investigated this market while researching for my last book, "Planet Elephant", spending time with TRAFFIC staff in Hanoi to try and understand the link between Vietnam and Africa's rhinos and elephants.
There I learned that the dark underworld of the rhino horn trade was all about money, prestige, egos, status - stuff that gets me fired up pretty much every day nowadays because it affects the entire natural world, not just rhinos. We all have to make a crust and pay the bills, but the demand for rhino horn, which had a value exceeding gold and cocaine at the time, was all about showing off status among rich business men and government officials. Greed can be an incredibly powerful driving force.
Researching the illegal rhino horn trade in Hanoi, Vietnam, led me to a hospital for children suffering from cancer. It was unfathomable to think at the time that there were people trying to sell rhino horn to desperate parents with sick children on the false idea that rhino horn could cure cancer.
The poaching continues in Africa, with over 7000 rhinos having been killed for their horns in the last decade, according to Save The Rhino Trust. In the last few years however, we have started to see a slight decline in the poaching rates in South Africa and due to massive efforts on the ground to get on top of this problem, rhino numbers overall are still increasing slightly. The Greater one-horned rhino population in India and Nepal is actually increasing. The critically endangered African black rhino population is also slightly increasing. So while Sudan's death and the loss of the northern white rhino species is a devastating thing to witness on our watch, there is reason for hope and even more so, reason to act to ensure that what happened to this species never happens again.
Graph from Save The Rhino Trust.
We have brought a rhino subspecies back from the brink in the past - the southern white rhino. Not that long ago their numbers were down to about 50 individuals due to widespread hunting in colonial times, but they now stand at about 20,000. Private landholders breeding rhinos in collaboration with a supportive government in South Africa went a long way in creating this success story. The stories of the other species of rhinos don't have to end the way Sudan's has.
This weekend is Earth Hour. When my hubby Andy started Earth Hour back in 2007, (also coincidentally the year we met when both employed at WWF in Sydney), we didn't know how far and wide this movement would go. Within a couple of years, it was a global social movement, the biggest of its time, and people who had said it would never work and belittled it as nothing more than a silly PR campaign had woken up to the importance of symbolism in times of environmental crisis. Communication has never been more important in conservation. Many millions of people all around the world still celebrate Earth Hour today. It's not about the lights going out and the power that saves. It's about a whole lot of humans actually giving a crap and doing something for this amazing planet we seem hell bent on destroying. Back in 2007, the Australian government (under John Howard) didn't believe in climate change, and even at WWF, my team (which was government funded) had to refer to it as 'climate variability' to avoid pissing them off. We laugh about this now. There are no longer questions around whether climate change is happening and many government departments are actively developing climate change adaption programs to try and cope with it.
Photo: Earth Hour
Things don't change if a whole lot of us don't collectively stand up and try and do something. Digital movements like the one Andy is working on now, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, are immensely powerful when people get behind them. Look at what's happening in the UK right now with the movement against plastic. Look at the impact of the #metoo movement across the world. Change can happen, but we must all use our power and influence and get on board. No matter how small you think your action might be, no matter how insignificant you feel, remember that you are part of a much bigger picture and YOU COUNT.
If you care about the natural world and want to do something about it, there's lots you can do.
Talk about these issues to your friends, share the messages and find little ways to make a difference in your own world. Use keep cups instead of throwaway ones, try to buy groceries without plastic where possible, avoid using plastic bags (take your own) and say no to straws. No one's perfect but we all have to start somewhere.
Sign up to movements that matter like Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef and commit to actions that reduce your environmental footprint. The great thing about their digital platform is you can actually see your impact over time.
Go on ethical safaris that make a difference and directly give back to rhino and elephant conservation on the ground, direct at the source. Employment of local people for tourism has a huge positive impact against poaching. My July 2019 Namibian safari is a prime example of one you can join that makes a real difference in rhino and elephant conservation.
Above all, don't give up!
A lot of people don't realise how lucky they are to see a wild rhino on safari. These are among the most endangered species on the planet. One of my favourite places to see black rhinos is in Namibia. This photo was taken on one of my Namibian safaris a few years ago. This rhino had been dehorned by Save The Rhino Trust and the Namibian government as a deterrent to poachers.