By Louis Lucero II
After two decades of gains, the world’s population of rhinoceroses is being killed off by poachers at such a high rate that conservationists fear the deaths could soon surpass the number of rhinos that are born each year.
The International Rhino Foundation, a global nonprofit group, said Friday that two rhinos a day are being poached in South Africa alone, and that 688 were believed to have been killed there in 2012 — a record that was surpassed this year by September.
Susie Ellis, the executive director of the foundation, warned that worse days for the rhinos might still lie ahead.
“What we’re seeing is that, while in any given year this kind of off-take might be sustainable, this trend is what’s not sustainable, this skyrocketing increase,” Ms. Ellis said in a telephone interview while at a meeting of rhino experts in Tampa, Fla. “There are reasons to think that it might get worse before it gets better.” She said conservationists foresee a point where there will be so much poaching that “soon we will start to see populations go down,” though she said she could not reliably predict when that might happen.
“It’s going to be a struggle for populations to keep up with these poaching rates,” Ms. Ellis said.
Rhinoceroses, among the largest living land mammals, are widely seen as symbols of humans’ impact on the natural world. They have been hunted for centuries. Their horns, which ounce for ounce are worth more than gold on black markets, are prized in traditional Chinese medicine as a fever-reducing agent or, more recently, as a hangover preventive. Hunting rhinos is highly restricted, yet laws are often poorly enforced.
The International Rhino Foundation, which contributes information to the “Red List” of endangered species of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, estimates that there are fewer than 30,000 rhinos left of the surviving five species — black, white, Indian, Sumatran and Javan.
Illegal poaching is only the most obvious of the threats facing the world’s remaining rhino populations, a report by the group said. The animals are also threatened by deforestation, displacement by human settlements and the fragmentation of their habitats. The species that is most at risk is the Sumatran rhino, whose population has been estimated at fewer than 100. More....