“It would break your heart and it would break mine if there were no more rhinos,” Jon Taylor, Save the Rhino’s Deputy Director, said during an honest conversation about what our planet would look like if they were all gone. Western black rhinos are already extinct and northern white rhinos are functionally so, with only two females from the latter existing at a wildlife conservancy in Kenya. They are under 24-hour guard because the price attached to their horns is worth more to some people than their last two lives. This is of no surprise when poachers are so desperate they place little to no value on human life; the rangers go to work knowing that they may die trying to protect these gentle herbivorous giants.
This highly polarised situation, of killing or being killed, perhaps reflects the larger global division of those who are willing to fight for our planet today and those who don’t care or think it’s a “situation” that can wait until tomorrow. As David Attenborough is desperately trying to drive home to us, very recently in his “terrifying” documentary ‘Extinction: The Facts,’ apathy, or waiting for someone else to do it, is no longer an option. Well, it is, but at the expense of our planet’s abundance… including ourselves. The Anthropocene Epoch is here; human activity is significantly impacting Earth’s climate and ecosystems.
The Looming Threat of Extinction
The recent report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, comprising 455 expert and contributing authors from 50 countries, has put a number on it: 1 million. One million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction. We are hemorrhaging species we love, species we value, and species we need – all of which we have damaged, destroyed, and exploited. Not just rhinos but other terrestrial and marine mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and plant life. As COVID-19 is spreading and claiming lives at an unprecedented rate, we have been spreading and consuming. Faster than the global ecosystem we are a part of can cope with and much quicker than we can replace, (if what we are demolishing can be replaced at all). It is resulting in unparalleled biodiversity loss; a mass extinction event we are witnessing in our lifetime. The West Coast Community orca off the coast of the United Kingdom (UK) is an example of a unique population on an irreversible road to extinction because of what we have done.
The report, along with a second, have both independently reached the same timeframe: We must fix this within ten years. “…Transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors” must start to be achieved by the year 2030, and we must keep the rise in global temperature under 1.5ᵒC or the loss experienced will be profound. At the very least, keeping the rise under 2ᵒC is essential. The Paris Agreement, which came into effect in 2016, unites and holds accountable countries in doing just this. Yet when nations –and the world– are led by men such as Donald Trump, who has followed through on his pledge to withdraw the United States from the accord, after being voted into office by the general public, the outlook appears bleak.
The Effects of COVID-19 on Endangered Animals
The additional strain has been felt by conservation efforts due to the COVID-19 pandemic; an outbreak that has also arisen from human consumption. Taylor describes how measures put in place to combat the zoonotic virus have led to an almost complete reduction in eco-tourism and therefore funding. This is devastating for the protection of rhinos as, while personal changes such as litter picking, recycling, and restricting energy use and carbon footprints are all vital, it is money that will ultimately ensure their survival. It is money that pays for maintaining protected habitat, rangers’ wages, necessary equipment, and resources, as well as security measures, which in turn pays off for the other life around them. “Rhinos are an umbrella species,” Taylor explains. “If you are saving them, you are looking after other animals as well, from aardvarks to dung beetles. Whereas if we lose them completely from their habitat, the vegetation and other species found in that system will change.”
Our crisis on our one Earth thickens as Taylor explores the eventuality of persisting and worsening harm: “If you remove one large herbivore from the ecosystem then the situation can probably be managed. Remove several and the effect is cumulative, seriously impacting and degrading the whole system, including us.” Famine, dehydration, disease, and homelessness are already consequences for some. The eventual ecosystem collapse would be the worst-case scenario arising from our disharmony with and disconnection from the natural world. But in the meantime, “When it gets to the stage where you don’t have to take a population sample because you can count the whole population,” Taylor says of the rhinos, “when you know all of their ‘names’, it is incredibly sad.” One must wonder if there was anything at all to celebrate on last month’s World Rhino Day…
Positive Steps in Conservation
Source: Save the Rhino
At the turn of the 20th century, there were less than 100 southern white rhinos, however, they now number around 18,000 individuals. Similarly, black rhinos have increased from 2,000 animals in the mid-90s to around 5,500 today. So there are success stories, both in the field and behind the scenes. Since the short documentary ‘Save the Rhino Vietnam’ was released in 2017, featuring actors Jacob Dudman and Paul Blackthorne, steps have been taken in the right direction to reduce the huge Vietnamese and Eastern Asian rhino horn market. China has made it illegal to use animal products for non-medicinal consumption purposes, although the legal status of displaying horns for social and cultural status is still being discussed. While there has only been talk of Vietnam following suit, Taylor spoke of a “recent decree from the country’s Prime Minister pledging a commitment (not law) to take very seriously the shutting down of illegal wildlife markets, including a focus on addressing the involvement of corrupt government officials, which sounds promising.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
Dudman, star of Netflix’s ‘The Stranger’, applauds this decision, but urges people not to become complacent. He says, “With issues as big and important as these –when it’s a matter of life and death for a species– we need to keep pushing. It’s been great to see the positive steps taken in Vietnam since we released our documentary, and while there are efforts to be celebrated, a lot of ‘commitments’ have already been made in the past. We need to ensure that these pledges are followed through and enforced.” Dudman fears that until certain governments are held to account, particularly on their lack of law enforcement, we won’t see the necessary changes taking place.
Rhinos are not the only species making big bucks. Another species worth millions to humans are orcas and it was not too long ago that a young female wild-born orca was laundered for profit. In fact, the illegal wildlife trade is one of the most prolific industries in the world, fourth only to drugs, firearms and human trafficking. The wildlife trade is a threat to animals and humans alike. This is why the Campaign to End Wildlife Trade, a coalition of 25 of the UK’s leading animal welfare and conservation groups, are petitioning the UK government to call for a global wildlife trade ban at the G20 summit in November.
It’s Time to End the Captivity of Wild Animals and the Wildlife Trade
Sonul Badiani-Hamment from World Animal Protection said, “COVID-19 is a wake up call for the world – and the case for a global ban of the legal wildlife trade and improved legal enforcement mechanisms of the illegal trade, has never been more urgent. That’s why we have founded the Campaign to End Wildlife Trade, calling on the UK government to champion a global wildlife trade ban to help prevent a future zoonotic pandemic. SARS, Ebola and now COVID-19 are all believed to have passed from wildlife to humans. We urgently need to avoid the inaction following previous disease outbreaks and work together with countries around the world to end the wildlife trade. COVID-19 will be at the top of the agenda at the G20 meeting of global leaders in November and we urge the Prime Minister to back a global wildlife trade ban to protect billions of animals, our health and the global environment.”
Margaux Dodds, Marine Connection co-founder and member of the coalition, is focusing particular efforts on the harmful impact of the captive animal entertainment industry. She states, “The impact of COVID-19 on the global economy highlights how wrong it is for animals, including dolphins and whales, to continue to be taken from the wild for public display, and indeed questions if they should be held in captivity at all. With facilities around the globe facing an uncertain financial future, the animals therein are totally at the industry’s mercy for protection, food and their continued welfare.”
Dodds reminds us that removing animals from the wild threatens not only the welfare of the individual animal taken, but also potentially the survival of entire wild populations. Claims of conservation from the entertainment industry are therefore no longer an acceptable excuse to justify the captivity of some species. The harmful impact of the captive entertainment industry on orcas, for example, was reported by David Kirby in his book ‘Death at SeaWorld’, which has just been optioned for a television series.
With all of this in mind, Dodds believes the way forward is to protect animals in the wild, along with their natural habitat, rather than keep them confined in tanks and cages purely for entertainment. “We are asking people to support the campaign,” she says, “to help end the suffering and confinement of wild-caught dolphins and whales for public display, and to prevent future pandemics such as Covid-19, SARS and other infections, which have their roots in the global trade in wildlife.” Dudman is encouraging people to support this call to end the trade too: “We need to raise our voices for the voiceless and use the power of the Internet to force action from our elected leaders.” The coalition’s petition has gained around 150,000 signatures and is being handed over to the UK’s government in Downing Street, London on the 20th of October.
Taylor foresees how it will only be after species have changed or gone that we will realize how much we relied on them or their habitat. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s rhinos, tigers or orcas,” he emphasizes. “What’s important is you find a species you are passionate about, go out there and do what you can to save it. By doing that you are protecting other species and their habitat, as well as preserving our spiritual and cultural link with the natural world.”
What Can You Do
While government reaction is necessary, Taylor is eager to reinforce how individual action is crucial to motivate politicians and other official bodies who are in positions of power. They won’t fix it by themselves or without their communities telling them to. But Taylor’s main concern this year is that animal conservation and welfare incomes have dried up. He is urging people to keep funding Save the Rhino’s partners who are protecting rhinos in Namibia, Zambia, South Africa, Kenya, and Indonesia. Taylor’s take-home message is simple: “Behind keyworkers on the frontline there is a whole community of people supporting them. We are all conservationists, whether we live in Kenya or Islington. Ultimately, the people who pay –in money, time and tears– will be the people who care. The responsibility sits with us.”
You can write to your local politicians and use the hashtag #EndWildlifeTrade to support the Campaign to End Wildlife Trade’s call for a wildlife trade ban at this year’s G20 summit. You can also be a part of Save the Rhino’s and their partners’ efforts to protect rhinos and their ecosystems by donating here.
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