By Chuck Bednar
Bad news for struggling herbivore populations facing extinction: the financial incentive for poachers to collect and sell animal parts is increasing, with rhinoceros horns topping gold and diamonds in terms of value-by-weight, according to a new study.
UCLA ecology and evolutionary biology professor Blaire Van Valkenburgh and her colleagues published their research in the online journal Science Advances. They report that these trends could lead to the extinction of many large herbivores, including multiple species of rhinos, elephants, hippos, and gorillas.
For example, the authors report that forest elephants populations declined by 62 percent between 2002 and 2011, and that the number of rhinos being hunted by poachers has soared from 13 per year in 2007 to more than 1,000 per year in 2013. In addition, one-fifth of the Earth’s wild savannah elephant population were poached between 2010 and 2012.
“Radical intervention” required to save rhinos, elephants
If these trends continue, Van Valkenburgh explained in a statement, there would be very few or no remaining savannah elephants in 10 years, and in two decades, the African rhino populations would be all but wiped out. Furthermore, the loss of these creatures could have a serious impact on other animals and the ecosystems they call home.
Van Valkenburgh’s team analyzed a total of 74 species weighing an average of 220 pounds at adulthood, and found that without “radical intervention,” these large herbivores, as well as many smaller ones, will continue to vanish – which will have a tremendous impact of the ecology, the economy and the society of the parts of the world that they call home.
“Decades of conservation efforts are being reversed by the entrance of organized crime into the ivory and rhino horn markets,” the UCLA professor said. She added that the researchers were stunned to find that nearly 60 percent of all herbivores the same size or larger than a reindeer are now considered to be threatened species.
Huge change is necessary
She states, “For some of the largest animals, such as elephants and rhinos, it is likely a matter of a few decades before they are extinct – and no more than 80 to 100 years for the rest of the large herbivores.”
“Large herbivores, and their associated ecological functions and services, have already largely been lost from much of the developed world,” they wrote. “Now is the time to act boldly, because without radical changes in these trends, the extinctions that eliminated most of the world’s largest herbivores 10,000 to 50,000 years ago will only have been postponed for these last few remaining giants.”