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Africa Black Rhinos May Be Heading Back From Brink

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
July 7, 2004
 
The recovery of Africa's southern white rhinoceros population from no
more than 50 animals a century ago to over 11,000 today is a
conservation success story. More grim has been the tale of the
continent's black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis).

Poachers drove its numbers down from perhaps a million at the turn of the 20th century to an all-time low of 2,400 in the mid-1990s. But a new survey suggests that a promising new chapter may have begun for the massive animal.



Antipoaching efforts and breeding programs by government agencies and conservation organizations have reversed the black rhino's decline, according to a report by the World Conservation Union's African Rhino Specialist Group.

The group found that black rhino numbers increased by 500 animals in the last two years alone and today stand at roughly 3,600.

"This is a long-term conservation project. … After 43 years of funding for black rhino work, we're finally starting to see a return for our money," Callum Rankine said.

Rankine is a WWF international species officer based in Surrey, England. WWF is one of a number of conservation organizations working to save the black rhino.

"This increase in numbers is really encouraging," Rankine said. "Despite threats like poaching and habitat destruction, [black] rhino numbers are moving away from the brink of extinction. It is fantastic news for the rhinos and the conservationists working to protect them."

Ivory Poaching

The majority of black rhinos remaining today are found in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe.

Rankine says some experts have estimated that a million black rhinos may have roamed Africa at the turn of the 20th century. But others believe that the number of black rhinos has been declining from approximately 850,000 animals since 1700.

More reliable contemporary estimates, however, suggest that there were at least a hundred thousand black rhinos in 1960.

Demand for rhino horn over the past 50 to 60 years, however, made the black rhinos an increasingly rare sight in Africa. Trade in rhino horn peaked in the 1960s and '70s, when huge quantities were shipped to Middle Eastern and Asian markets.

In Yemen, for example, rhino horn is carved into handles used in daggers called jambiyas. The daggers are carried as a status symbol, according to Richard Emslie, a scientific officer of the World Conservation Union's African Rhino Specialist Group, based in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Emslie said that during the 1970s, 3,000 to 4,000 kilograms (6,600 to 8,800 pounds) of rhino horn entered north Yemen illegally each year.

During the last decade, however, Yemen has imported just 70 kilograms (150 pounds) of rhino horn a year on average, Emslie said. He attributes the decline to conservation programs and a drop in disposable income in Yemen.

Many Asians, meanwhile, continue to use rhino horn as a traditional medicine for fever—despite modern clinical trials, which show rhino horn has little or no effect in reducing fever, according to Emslie.

Steps to Recovery

By 1980 poaching and habitat destruction had reduced black rhino numbers to around 14,000. In 1991 the population stood at just 3,450, then plummeted in 1995 to an all-time low of some 2,400.

But the conservation agencies of South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe—which harbor most of Africa's black rhinos—have managed to halt the animal's decline.

The countries have been aided by conservation experts at WWF, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Southern African Development Community.

Emslie, the World Conservation Union scientist, said a number of law-enforcement practices put in place in the 1990s have helped decrease black rhino poaching in those countries:

• Antipoaching patrols have intensified and been better targeted.

• Park rangers and antipoaching units now have a much better idea of how to collect evidence and secure crime scenes to increase the chances of bringing a conviction against suspected poachers.

• The development of "networks of informers" has helped authorities press charges against poachers.

• Penalties for poaching have increased in some countries, where prison sentences of five to ten years have recently been assigned.

Emslie added that breeding programs have played a key role in black rhino conservation efforts.

Program managers, for example, work to keep individual populations at the optimal size for a given area of habitat. Smaller rhino populations put females in top breeding condition to churn out calves. That's because, left unchecked, black rhino populations can grow to the point where females are competing with other rhinos for food. As a result, females take longer to conceive again after producing each calf.

To avoid this breeding slowdown, authorities move rhinos from healthy populations to seed new populations or bolster old ones in other areas of the animal's range.

Emslie likens the practice to a form of investment banking "with the rhino populations like a portfolio of shares," he said. "We move animals around to maximize the gains from our investment."

Conservationists hope the black rhino can emulate the success story of its cousin, the white rhino.

Emslie cautions that there is no room for complacency, noting that experts have observed a slight increase in rhino poaching over the last two years—the same period in which black rhino numbers also grew quickly.

"[Poaching] still represents less than a total of 40 to 50 animals of both [African] rhino species per year, and has not prevented African rhino numbers continuing to increase," Emslie said.

"It is critical that poaching remains kept at manageable, low levels," he said. "Poaching is a little like a wildfire. If you keep a lid on it when it is small, it stays manageable."

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