Thursday, January 10, 2013

Better news about rhinos – I hope.

-->Folks maybe fed up with a series of gloom and doom stories about rhinos and the devastation that human greed is creating among them.  I have come across recent posts that shed a much more positive perspective, but sadly not about African rhinos. In December an online magazine called Global Animal carried a story about rhino in Indonesia.

We know that in 2012 the Javan (or Sunda) rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) in Vietnam was declared extinct, but according to Lauren Mellela of Global Animal the situation in Indonesia has happier components. The article has an embedded video showing several cow-calf pairs of this species caught on remote sensor cameras in Ujung Kulon National Park. Apparently some 35 different individuals have been filmed or identified. The video is just under 3 minutes in length and is worth a look-see, especially if you have never seen this species. There are few, if any in zoos, anywhere. They bear some resemblance to the Indian one-horned species.

Sumatran rhino at the Molucca zoo. (Note the site of the sawn-off horns)
The Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is the only Asian one with two horns. It is also the smallest and the hairiest one of all five remaining species. I saw what was probably the first one captured in modern times in the Molucca Zoo in Malaysia in 1985 and was even able to give some medical advice and arrange for some much-needed antibiotics to be delivered to the zoo vet.

Since then a few more have been captured and some success with captive breeding has occurred. In this video a male calf is shown being born in a conservation centre in Indonesia. It is reported to be only the fourth time that such a captive birth has occurred.

As reported in this National Geographic article there are thought to be fewer than 400 members of this species left, so any breeding successes are a positive sign,


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Rhino poaching and possible solutions

Rhino killing in Africa continues more or less unabated. 

The “official” figure for 2012 is 633 rhinos poached, the majority in South Africa’s flagship Kruger National Park. This is likely to be a low-ball number. One source dated in mid-December has suggested 699. I would not be a bit surprised if the true number was well over 700.

Then of course comes the question of how many of these victims were pregnant females. 
This poignant picture, sent by Dr. CR “Bossie” Boshoff to all members of a wildlife vet listserv shows a tiny foetus found in the uterus of one such animal. 
Here is another pair of photos, these ones from Dr. Lin-Mari de Klerk-Lorist the State Veterinary office in the Kruger

The lactating cow was already pregnant, and her accompanying 2.5 year-old calf was killed. Three animals down in one nasty raid!

There are reports that about 600 people have been arrested in connection with this crime, but how many of them will actually be found guilty, or receive sentences that will send the preventive message?

The recent sentence of 40 years given to  Chumlong  Lemtongthai  might have some effect, but it might not. Life sentences and the death penalty have not stopped murders.

As I have written before, paltry sentences have been quite useless in Kenya and I still wonder how many links in the money chain there are so that the actual real cash goes to some high-placed politician or a person with those sorts of contacts. When the price of horn exceeds the price of gold by a factor of two, temptation is enormous. 

Forty years ago, as Ian Parker wrote in his book What I Tell You Three Times is True, the president’s wife was a major player in the export of ivory. Nobody was going to be able to stop that.

The critical thing to remember is that so far any and all attempts to stop the poaching have more or less failed, at least in parts of Africa. It would seem that an alternative strategy and thinking process is needed. If not an alternative, at least an effective parallel one.

On Dec 16 Robert Godec, the United States ambassador to Kenya, wrote a 134 word op-ed piece in Kenya’s Daily Nation  newspaper titled “We need to work together to save Africa’s threatened wildlife from greedy poachers.”

His most crucial sentences were as follows:
“And most importantly, we need to persuade individuals to stop buying ivory, rhino horn, and other products that require the slaughter of wildlife.

In short, we need to galvanise bold, comprehensive, worldwide action against poaching. We need to stop the organised and criminal slaughter of wildlife.”

In the Oct-Dec issue of Swara  the magazine arm of the East African Wildlife Society there are two articles on the subject of rhino poaching. The first is an opinion piece by Kenneth K. Coe, who styles himself as an Asian American. He is chairman of the Nature Conservancy's volunteer Africa council.   He makes the point that we are wasting our time if we try to change thousands of years of TCM culture. We are also wasting our time if we target the heart of the rhino horn user by appealing to a sort of inner "love" of rhinos. The real approach, he suggests, is to get at the brain of the users by telling them that they are being scammed or "defrauded by rumor-mongering criminals and others on the take.'" His key paragraph starts like this:

This is the message that needs to circulate in Asia. "You are being conned! Who do you think is spreading the cancer cure rumour? It's the rhino horn dealers! Such a rumour is slap in the face to TCM, a 3,000 year old art of healing.

Another way of putting this is that buyers are being sold useless goods by what used to be called snake oil salesmen. They were vilified and run out of town by the (usually) white-hatted sheriff in many a spaghetti western. Let’s get that vilification onto the television, radio and print media in Vietnam, where the cancer cure nonsense seems to be strongest.

In another highly relevant article in the same issue, Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne have a piece titled Strategies To Decrease Rhino Poaching In Africa: Our Personal View. These two have tracked and followed the rhino and ivory story for three decades. They provide a comprehensive figure of rhino poaching, covering the period 2007 to 2011, of at least 1370 animals. Add the 2012 figures and we are two thousand and counting!

In their article Martin and Vigne compare the protection of rhino in the Indian sub-continent with the apparent failures in some parts of Africa.

The bottom line is that where the poaching is less rampant there is a more coordinated effort by government. Villagers on the fringes of the Indian parks are helped with all sorts of agricultural enterprises and far more money is spent per km2 than in Africa. In a couple of parks there are two field staff per square kilometre. Of course this leads to far more buy-in by villagers and if poachers are arrested and tried the local judiciary “usually gives sentences of several years in prison that act as an adequate deterrent.”

In a few African countries (Namibia, Swaziland) there has been much less poaching, which can probably be ascribed to much lower human densities than in South Africa as well as lower rhino numbers, stiff sentences for those found guilty,  and greater buy-in by local communities. One of the problems that plagues the Kruger efforts is the huge size of the park (at 20,000 km2 it is about the same area as Wales or about four times the size of Prince Edward Island) and the much lower density of staff (one person per 33 km2). On top of that there is a more-or-less open border with Mozambique all along the eastern boundary of the park. As Martin and Vigne report “There have been a number of arrests of poachers, but overall intelligence and cooperation with official across the border has been inadequate, and Mozambique’s penalties for wildlife crimes are ineffectual.”

It's an interesting read, accompanied by several telling pictures, including ones of fake rhino horns for sale in China.