Poaching Crisis Demands Attention, Say Global Advocates
TAMPA, Fla. - In response to a perilously rising tide of rhino poaching around the world, global conservation experts this week gathered at Busch Gardens® in Tampa, calling for an end to the epidemic. The International Rhino Foundation (IRF) convened experts from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Indonesia, India and the United States and released the "State of the Rhino," which details the status of rhinos globally. The group reports that rhinos are fast approaching a tipping point, with poaching deaths nearly outnumbering births after two decades of population recovery.
"This is simply unsustainable and is a serious threat to the conservation gains of the last several decades," said Susie Ellis, IRF's executive director. "If we do not take this poaching crisis seriously and take urgent action, we could see the permanent loss of viable rhino populations that ensure long-term survival of the species. These poaching levels threaten to wipe out decades of conservation progress, and it is imperative that we take action now."
The group released the "State of the Rhino" report as part of its 2012 Annual Report, offering new data on rhino poaching and action steps for successful, lasting conservation. In response to a dramatic spike in poaching in Africa since 2008, IRF is re-launching Operation Stop Poaching Now, a campaign to provide training and equipment to anti-poaching units in Zimbabwe and South Africa known as Rhino Protection Units (RPUs), as well as educate the public on the increased threat to the species.
So far in 2013, 827 white and black rhinos have been poached in South Africa alone. By September, poaching numbers in the country topped the annual record of 668 set in 2012, which amounted to two rhinos killed each day. By comparison, only 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2007. Rhinos in Africa are poached primarily for their horn, which was traditionally used in Chinese medicine but is now considered a prestigious commodity in Vietnam. Meanwhile, two of the five rhino species - Indonesia's Javan and Sumatran rhinos - remain close to extinction as two of the world's most endangered large mammals.
Reports from anti-poaching organizations and field experts point to the problem, as well as the possible solutions.
"There is an incredible team of dedicated people trying to stop the tide," said Elise Daffue, founder of Stop Rhino Poaching, a South Africa-based group raising awareness and support for the war against rhino poaching. "But unfortunately, with the proliferation of poaching groups across South Africa, it's proven to be a difficult and challenging task."
All five living rhino species (black, white, Indian greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan) face a terrible threat - from poaching, from forest loss and habitat conversion, and from human settlements encroaching on their habitats in Africa, Indonesia and India. IRF works to protect particularly threatened rhino populations and their habitats in the wild, investing resources where the need is greatest.
"Despite the crisis, there is hope for rhinos," Ellis said. "We believe that the situation can be turned around. The sticking point is whether rhino countries like South Africa and consumer countries like Vietnam and China will enforce their laws, as well as whether countries like Indonesia will take the bold actions needed to save Sumatran and Javan rhinos."
SUCCESSFUL CONSERVATION SOLUTIONS
Despite dark spots over the last year, species conservation efforts have achieved success.
Through a partnership with the Lowveld Rhino Trust, IRF has helped to keep Zimbabwe's rhino populations from going extinct through its Zimbabwe Lowveld Rhino Program. The Lowveld area now holds 90 percent of the country's rhinos. Despite 2012's highest levels ever of poaching across Africa, poaching has decreased significantly over the past several years in Zimbabwe. And in 2012, 33 calves were born, including the 100th calf born in the Bubye Valley Conservancy since introductions began in 2002. This population is now growing at nearly 10 percent per year.
In South Africa, IRF has focused resources toward very specific niches: assessing security needs and providing training and equipment to areas that need an infusion of expertise to increase their ability to successfully handle poaching incursions. IRF also is exploring the use of tracker dogs to assist in anti-poaching activities.
In India, IRF's joint initiative with the Government of Assam, the Bodoland Territorial Council, WWF-India and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Indian Rhino Vision 2020 - saw 12 more rhinos translocated to Manas National Park in India, for a total of 18 animals now populating the park. Last year, the first birth occurred in the park, a good sign that the program is well on its way to being successful.
In Indonesia, video camera traps - placed in Ujung Kulon National Park in 2012 as part of IRF's Javan Rhino Conservation Program - helped park staff to identify 35 different Javan rhinos, out of a presumed population of about 44 animals. Surveys there are continuing, backed up by the camera traps and collection of feces for DNA analysis. In June 2012, the first calf was born at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary as the result of a breeding program in existence since 1998. Through its Sumatran Rhino Conservation Program, IRF continues to fund and co-manage the facility with partner Yayasan Badak Indonesia.
SEAWORLD & BUSCH GARDENS CONSERVATION FUND'S ROLE
Busch Gardens, through its SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, has been a key supporter of IRF's programs in critical areas, such as Zimbabwe, since 2005. Since its inception in 2003, the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund has partnered with grantee organizations focusing on species research, habitat protection, animal rescue and rehabilitation, and conservation education, contributing more than $10 million to about 600 projects in 60 countries.
Of that, the Fund has granted $400,000 to 29 rhino-based conservation projects since 2004. Partnering on nine different projects in Zimbabwe since 2005, IRF and the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund have helped return the country's critically endangered black rhino population to slowly increasing. Tour guides spotlight this conservation work for guests when they visit Busch Gardens' rhino facilities. The Conservation Fund's newest support for rhino conservation and anti-poaching is with the Wilderness Foundation and The Mantis Collection in South Africa.
"We are honored to be able to host the IRF, as well as some of the world's foremost rhino conservation experts, here at Busch Gardens," said Jeff Andrews, vice president of zoological operations at Busch Gardens Tampa. "The SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund has contributed significantly to the conservation of these rhino species. With the support of the IRF and world-renowned conservation experts, like those gathering in Tampa, we will continue the progress we've seen over the past decade and beyond."