White Rhinos - A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was an African unicorn. It was called the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), but the last one died a long time ago, even though it was protected night and day by men and women with automatic rifles.*

In truth there still is one kind of unicorn left living in Africa, the southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum) and a very unlikely Pleistocene beast it is … although there might not be any left alive by the time you have children.

For the past few million years white rhinos roamed the grassland savannas of southern and east-central Africa, moving like slow two-ton lawn mowers. They bred even slower but, with no natural predators, lived in mostly in peace. Then came guns, first with Arab slave and ivory traders and later with European explorer-adventurers.

By 1960 the southern race was extinct across most of its range, while its northern cousins were doing hardly any better. The race continued its demise as uhuru spread across the region and industrial scale wildlife slaughter was witnessed. Then the Asian economic tiger awakened and it wanted rhino horn, among its many hungers (today Vietnam is the Number One offending nation).

Back to the late 1950s, a ranger in the Zululand region of South Africa named Ian Player (brother of the more famous golfer Gary), realized his park had the last viable population of maybe 200 southern white rhinos. However, breeding at best only about once every two years, their chances of long-term survival were limited.

Working in what is now known as the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, Player cobbled together a team with the intention of exporting viable breeding groups to other game reserves in the region. Operation Rhino had to pioneer all the tricks of the errr… trade… of capturing and relocating what in the field are known as mega-herbivores. Those were fun times indeed in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi and many a strong muscled man bit the dust.

The largest satellite herd went to the Kruger National Park. Today the Kruger Park safeguards (or tries to) a population of around 6,000 to 7,000 of the animals. It is hard to be more precise since over the past 20 years, between 200 and 700 have been killed by poachers annually.

Wild Rhino in a field - photo by Dana Allen

Currently South Africa holds more than three quarters of the entire remaining number of the sub-species (although, given that the northern sub-species is technically extinct in the wild, we might say species), which totals around 20,000 individuals in the wild.

The story of Operation Rhino and bringing back the species from the toe-edge of extinction certainly is a great one, but it is not yet over. The current tide of poaching is a veritable tsunami and the future is like a turbulent surf zone.

Poaching and anti-poaching is a real arms race. The trade is controlled by international crime cartels operating mainly in southeast Asia. Poachers on the ground risk their lives for a resource that – while having no more use than your hair or fingernail clippings – can realize more than gold or heroin in street value. Not even zoo-held animals are safe.

Further muddying the waters are horn-trade speculators who have managed to persuade conservation agencies in Africa, and are now hell bent of influencing the international community, that trading horn on the open market is the best way to save rhinos. There are many cracks in this classic economic model, not least of all the already mentioned fact that criminals control the market.

Then there is the not-to-be ignored fact that, while the market high is around 70 tons a year, breeders and stocks held by conservation agencies in southern Africa can supply no more than five to seven tons a year sustainably. Where will the rest come from?

To which the Chinese authorities (as one example), reply: Give us one unequivocal message, trade or not trade, and we will comply. But until you do we cannot help. Africa needs to speak with one tongue. The anti-poaching warriors on the front lines are betting their bodies on it.


*At the time of writing this blog there were only two female northern white rhinos surviving on Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, the last male having died in March 2018. There is hope that DNA from a dozen individuals, currently in cold storage in Berlin and San Diego, might be used to grow new rhinos in much the same as has been done with mice at Kyushu University in Japan.

The first version of this article was posted on 26 Sep 2019 at 12:24 PM.