When we talk of conserving an animal species what do we actually mean? We are likely to have in mind a vision of a rhinoceros (or any other species, for that matter) being given the opportunity to pursue its natural way of life in its native environment, perhaps in a reserve or national park. And why should we want to conserve species? Our thinking may not go much beyond the idealistic position that they have a right to exist and that we (and our children and grandchildren) have a right to see them. But a recent talk at the University of Melbourne, “Rhino poaching and other conservation issues facing wildlife in southern Africa”, put such questions into a rather more stark perspective. The speaker was Professor Wouter van Hoven, Director of the Centre for Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, and what he had to say about wildlife conservation provided a generous serving of food for thought.
His introductory example was a non-African one: the vicuña in South America. A relative of the alpaca highly esteemed for its super-fine fleece, the vicuña was hunted to the point that, by the late 1960s, its estimated population had fallen to less than 5000 animals, which is generally regarded as being below the minimum viable population size. The number today has rebounded to several hundred thousand simply because the animals are now caught, shorn and released rather than being killed for their fleece; what is reckoned to be a traditional Inca mode of harvesting fleece of free-living vicuña has been re-established. The capture-shear-release method provides a valued and continuing resource base, and this instance is now frequently cited as a model for the sustainable management of wildlife by local communities.
This is all well and good, but behind the scenes and out of the range of the spotlight there surely lurks a shadow. It is simply this: the vicuña population has been restored to a state of viability not because we value the species in its own right, or because there is some absolute sense in which we respect its existence. No, it came close to disappearing because we saw it as a commodity to be exploited; and it has recovered only because we found a different way of exploiting it.
You can argue that the vicuña has been lucky in escaping the fate of many of the animals that we treat as commodities: it isn’t farmed (as the alpaca is). What would be wrong with farming it? Well, farming means domestication, and domestication removes the animal from its evolutionary and ecological context: it’s not hard to make the case that a species ceases to exist in the real sense once it is farmed.
A consequence of domestication is the loss or gross modification of natural social and reproductive behaviours, and the web of trophic and mutualistic relationships of which the species was an evolved part does not accompany it into the domestic sphere. And long-term domestication leads to such grotesque and human-dependent creatures as Pekingese dogs. A world expert in domesticated animal biology, Juliet Clutton-Brock, goes so far as to suggest “animals bred under domestication evolve into new species, as a result of reproductive isolation from their wild progenitors combined with natural and artificial selection in association with human societies”.
But what of rhinos? Professor Van Hoven didn’t deal with the species individually, but by far the most abundant one is the Southern White Rhino, whose total population is little over 20,000, the great majority of them in South Africa. He argued, with justified conviction, that we’re rapidly and comprehensively losing the battle to conserve African rhinos.
By no means the only, but certainly a major, cause of the continuing decline is killing of the animals by poachers so that their horns can be cut off and sold for use in ornamental and traditional medicinal applications. No fewer than 448 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2011; for 2012 the count is 199 to the end of April. He made particular comment on South Africa’s enormous Kruger National Park, whose Achilles’ heel is its long border with Mozambique, home to a burgeoning and impoverished human population to whom rhino horn is a gold-mine. Poachers who cross the border are subject to a shoot-to-kill policy (26 suspected poachers were shot in 2011), but the lure of the wealth that rhino horn represents overrides even this drastic deterrent.
There are intertwining arguments here that should be pursued in separate discussions. There is no evidence that rhino horn has any medicinal or aphrodisiac properties, nor is there justification for pointing the finger at the poachers and blaming them for the situation. What alternatives have we offered them?
What can be done? What about the idea of removing the horns of wild rhinos so that there’s no value in poaching them? Tried – and failed. A poacher encountering a dehorned rhino kills it anyway, no doubt thinking along the lines: “I’m not going to leave you to run around and waste more of my time by tracking you and then finding you’re worthless.”
What about game ranching? No, ranchers don’t want rhinos on their domains because it makes them such an attractive proposition for poachers, who not only target rhinos, but demolish fences and cause other damage and destruction.
Inspired by the vicuña turnaround, no doubt, Van Hoven suggests that the solution for rhinos too, is to harvest the product without killing the animal. When you remove a rhino’s horn, the stump regrows, and in time you’ll have another rhino horn that you can remove and sell.
But of course the whole crux of the rhino catastrophe is that the wild animal capture-dehorn-release model doesn’t work because it is subverted by the poacher, who kills, dehorns and runs away. Sadly too, the investment by local communities in the catch-and-release technique has not eliminated poaching of vicuñas, which is once more on the rise.
So, in the end, what options are you left with for rhinos but farming them? If you husband rhinos on a farm, says Van Hoven (they’ll thrive on the same feed as cattle), you can harvest their horns repeatedly and reap the profits yourself; the handsome financial return then justifies the cost of installing serious and effective security and anti-poaching measures. The rhino wins and the farmer wins; it’s only the poacher who loses.
In reality it’s not quite as simple as that. Rhinos are slow-maturing, slow-reproducing animals, and the reproductive success of captive-born females has thus far been poor. But that’s a minor issue: what is really disturbing is the supposition – or is it indeed the recognition? – that the only way to ensure the survival of rhinos, and many other species, is to commodify them. Rhinos cannot exist just for themselves: they have to earn the right to live as horn-manufacturers. But as soon as they’re placed in that situation, of course, their existence as rhinos in the full and proper sense comes to an end. When they enter the farm they shed their genuine rhino-ness as they pass through the gate.
What if we continue on our present trajectory until we reach the point at which rhinos cease to exist other than on farms and other than as sources of horn? Wouldn’t this confront us with one final question: isn’t the truly humane and ethical course now to bravely blink back our tears and allow rhinos to fade away? It would put an end to rhino-poaching, anyway.
This article was co-authored by Dr Angus Martin. Angus, now retired but continuing an active interest in evolutionary biology and wildlife conservation, has served as Head of the Department of Zoology, University of Melbourne; Coordinator, Certificate in Zookeeping, Box Hill Institute; and more recently as Scientific Consultant, Zoos Victoria.