Western Black Rhino Officially Declared EXTINCT by IUCN

A really sad milestone just happened today, so I felt like writing on it as well as describe the bleak future facing the world’s rhinos. 

The Black Rhinoceros used to traditionally occur throughout Sub Saharan Africa from the tropical grasslands of Nigeria, to the deserts of Somalia, clear through the East African Rift Valley to South Africa, and then through the cape and to savannas of Angola. Several subspecies occur throughout this range. The subspecies recently declared extinct, the Western Black Rhinoceros, occurred from Benin to the Eastern Central African Republic. The Rhinos were common throughout this range, reaching maximum abundance in the tropical savannahs of Northern Cameroon, and Northeastern Central African Republic. In the early half of the 19th century, they were reported as being quite common throughout NE CAR and Cameroon, but in the latter half, things took a turn for the worst. Rhino populations crashed in this stronghold, with populations in national parks dwindling to only average abundance in the late 1970s. Soon after, Sudanese-caused poaching in the NE of the CAR during the 1980s caused rhinos to be nearly extinct (the same poaching which wiped out the CAR’s once famous elephant herds), with very few individuals surviving; animals were still clinging on in the north of Cameroon though. Unfortunately the poaching continued, unstoppable, and a comprehensive survey in 2006 failed to locate any sign of the Western Black Rhino in its Cameroon stronghold. Recent surveys suggest that they are extinct here, in their last stand. It’s so sad to think that it could have just taken one properly managed National Park in N Cameroon or NE CAR and the species could have been saved.

Sadly though, all of the world’s other rhinoceros species are in trouble. Few recognize the plight that plagues these animals; it’s not just pandas and tigers that are in trouble, rhinos and elephants need help too whether you wish to believe it or not… All rhino species are on the doorstep of extinction and elephants are not far behind. Just examine the facts – Indian and White Rhinos are Vulnerable, with Black, Javan, and Sumatran Rhinos Critically Endangered. The subspecies situation is even worse: several of the Black Rhino subspecies have already gone extinct. The SE Asian mainland subspecies of Sumatran Rhinoceros that used to occur in Thailand, Indochina, Burma, India, and China has also shared that fate, as well as the mainland subspecies of the Javan Rhinoceros. Even the comparatively less threatened Indian and White Rhinos are in trouble: The Indian Rhino’s range is restricted to a handful of tiny pockets in Nepal and India, while the White Rhino’s northern subspecies is almost extinct; a handful remain on one game ranch in Kenya, many interbred with the southern white rhino subspecies. A few may remain in the wild in their strongholds of the NE DRC and South Sudan.

The Black Rhino has only persisted, native in South Africa and Namibia, and even there, populations are threatened from poaching; these healthy, large populations are in trouble. Most rhinos in East Africa, such as the Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti, Masai Mara, and Laikipia are reintroduced; “original” animals are thought to only still occur in Tanzania’s remote, huge, untouched Selous Game Reserve. The chobiensis subspecies of Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia is extinct. 

The Javan Rhinoceros, which once ranged all over mainland SE Asia as well as Java, only clings on as around 40 animals in the remote Ujung Kulon NP. Incredibly elusive, these animals lead out a solitary existence among the mangroves, canals, and forests of the remote western part of the island. The mainland subspecies, who last haunt was Cat Tien NP in Vietnam, went extinct in 2010 following the last individual’s death at the hands of poachers. Vietnam and China area the worst countries in the world in terms of illicit Rhinoceros trade, so it is almost ironic that the last animal had to survive here…

The Sumatran Rhinoceros shares a similar fate, with only less than 200 animals surviving in a handful of remote national parks in Sumatra and Borneo. It too once used to range throughout mainland Asia, being quite common in the rain forests of North Burma and NE India.

With such iconic creatures in peril, most who have just found out about our rhinos’ predicament ask the question: what can we do to save them. The most important answer is STOP THE ILLEGAL TRADE OF RHINO HORNS. Once this is accomplished, poachers will no longer have motivation to risk their lives, and endanger the lives of others to kill these innocent animals. The most effective conservation method is to both better protect rhinos in crucial range states such as Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, India, Nepal, Indonesia, and Malaysia as well as stem the international underground trade of rhino horn. If demand in illegal trade centers such as China and Vietnam can be stopped, poaching will end in the simple supply-and-demand cycle. CITES, IUCN, WWF, and many more organizations are attempting this right now, and while we cannot see much in the way of positive changes – rhino poaching is actually on the rise – we can only hope for the better.

Venkat

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Location of the Week – The Kimberley

Deep in an isolated corner of Australia lies one of the world’s greatest wildernesses. The Kimberley, a jumble of vine thicket rain forests, monsoon-laden woodlands, dense tropical forested savannas, and rugged sandstone outcrops, has sheltered and has continued to hold some of Australia’s, and some the world’s most endangered, evolutionarily distinct mammal species. The Kimberley is an extremely diverse landscape, beginning with the sandy deserts of the south to the monsoon vine rain forests in the north. Between these areas, an astonishing diversity of species occurs – from the well-known such as Kangaroos and Wallabies, to Rabbit-rats, Phascogales, Quolls, and Bandicoots. To the north lies a scenic, wild coastline filled with coral reefs and diverse ocean communities. In fact, the Kimberley is so remote that many of the invasive-non native pests of Australia have not threatened the wildlife of this primeval land. It has held animals that have been forced into extinction in other parts of Australia, keeping them safe and in healthy numbers.

Unfortunately though, the Kimberley has been increasingly infiltrated by invasive pests – Feral cats, dogs, cattle, and worst of all – the cane toad. This creature, first introduced to Australia’s “Top End” in the Kakadu region of the Northern Territory, has wreaked immeasurable havoc on Australia’s rare, unique mammals. In particular, rare species, including the rare Northern Brush Tailed Phascogale, Northern Quoll, and more have been driven to near extinction from consuming the poisonous toads which are also fecund breeders. Previously though, the toads were restricted to the northern territory and north Queensland (luckily they have caused much less damage here than in the NT), but now they are beginning to increase their presence in the Kimberley as well. Fortunately though, the Quolls, Phascogales, Scaly Tailed, Northern Brushtail, and Rock Ringtail Possums, Golden Backed, Black-footed, and Brush-tailed Rabbit Rats, Nabarleks, Monjons, Northern Nailtail, Short Eared Rock, and Agile Wallabies, Planigales, Pseudantechinuses, Bandicoots, Rock Rats are safe in this region. While most of this is due to the region’s remoteness and in general, imperviousness to invasion by non native pests, this is also due to Australia’s excellent protection of this region. Huge reserves – Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s Artesian Range Preserve, Mitchell Falls National Park, Prince Regent Conservation Park, King Leopold Ranges National Park, and Drysdale River National Park – have safeguarded the region’s mammals from extinction. Thanks to this protection and isolation, they have survived unharmed and their populations stay healthy. Especially for mammals such as the Northern Quoll and Northern Brush Tailed Phascogale, whose populations have been decimated by toads, this area offers a key sanctuary, providing a light at the end of the tunnel for several species with otherwise bleak futures. Hopefully, as this region begins to gain attention from the world, increased support will come to protect this amazing landscape filled with rare species. This is one of the few areas in Northern Australia where mammals are protected well, and can survive for long periods of time – this is especially crucial in light of the recent huge numbers of mammal extinctions that have plagued Northern Australia, the most biodiverse part of the continent. In the end, I believe this region offers a good picture of idealized wildlife conservation and serves as a good template – the Kimberley is a region where national parks coexist with mining projects, and rare mammals survive in their primeval refuges that they have called home for millennia. Unfortunately though, this area is an exception: few live here, and it has stayed the same way for thousands of years. Most national parks and regions are not this “lucky,” particularly those in densely populated regions. Perhaps other parts of the world can learn and apply this to help their wildlife.

I hope to visit this area, or possibly also Cape York and North Queensland within the next few years…

Mammal of the Week – Wild Camel

The Wild Camel is one of the most endangered large mammals on Earth. Clinging to the remotest pockets of the highly inhospitable Gobi, Taklimakan, and Lop Nur Deserts, there are barely 1,000 of these magnificent animals left on Earth. Even in their last stands, they are still in peril.

There are barely 20 surviving in the remote Taklimakan Desert. It is thought that this population is not viable, and may well be already extinct. One can only hope a handful of camels are still hanging on in this remote region of the Earth.

In the Lop Nur Desert, the most healthy population occurs. Approximately 600 Wild Camels live in a huge region of desert and mountains just to the north of the Tibetan Plateau. Herds can often be observed near springs and waterholes in this remote region. Even here though, they are in grave danger; around 20-30 camels are lost every year to poachers in this region. Luckily, these animals are so far away from Domestic stock that hybridizing will not threaten their populations and the remaining few hundreds may still hold out for many more years in the remote rocks, sands, and dunes of the Gashun Gobi. The animals here have also developed a plethora of adaptations: they can survive by drinking salt water, the only water available. This amazing adaptation allows them to outcompete their predators, such as Wolves, surviving in areas where they cannot. The Lop Nur harbors a variety of other rare residents, including Desert Brown Bears, Tibetan Wolves, Blue Sheep, Tibetan Argali, Mongolian Wild Asses, and Goitered Gazelles, all in need of protection too.

The situation is sadly much worse in Mongolia. An estimated 25-30 animals are lost every year to Wolf Predation and poaching. Here the population is smaller though than that in China, estimated to number barely 350 animals. This is a species in true peril. Here, the animals are living on the edge, barely able to subsist on sparse desert shrubs. They are able to eat snow and ice to obtain water (not salt water though), something that can kill humans, in the frigid (below -40 C) Mongolian winters. Here too, they live with many endangered animals (wolves, bears, argali, gazelles, wild asses) in the remote Great Gobi A Strict Nature Reserve. Proper protection is the only hope for these animals.

What is the future for the Wild Camel? Right now, it’s looking very bleak. At the current rate, catastrophic 80% population declines from current levels are expected (IUCN Red List) within the next three generations (40-50 years)! The only way to save these magnificent creatures is to urge strong captive breeding programs to reintroduce animals in case extinction in the wild does occur, and rigorously guard the remaining viable wild populations in the Lop Nur and Great Gobi A Reserves with utmost care. Perhaps, if this is done, the Wild Camel might have a small chance to recover, potentially a glimmer of hope in the future of an animal who future can only be described as hopeless. I hope the wild camel recovers to its former abundance from its current last stand.

Until next time,

Venkat

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Wild Camel in China’s Lop Nur Desert

Conservation Location of the Week – Northern Burma

It’s a center of endemism, deep in the forested slopes of the highest mountains on earth; it shelters a huge number of endangered animals, as well as some of the world’s most beautiful scenery. The Eastern Himalaya is a fascinating place, the convergence of two different worlds: the snow, ice, rocks, and winds of the high mountains, and the humid, lush, green, tropical rainforest. Here, the biodiversity is like no place else, and the wildlife community is among the most unique found anywhere on Earth. Northern Burma is a land of steep mountains, craggy peaks and glaciers, and impenetrable hill forests. Few have ever visited, and we still know very little about this place. The vast state of Kachin, practically cut off from the outside world, and plagued with civil war, shelters tribal culture, remote wilderness, and rare wildlife. Of all these areas though, the Hkakaborazi Range, in the north, crowned by the Eastern Himalaya’s highest peak, the ranges namesake, Mt. Hkakaborazi, may just be the greatest of them all.

The journey begins in the remote, vast, and unexplored Hukawng Valley, recently declared a tiger reserve. While this area possesses a relatively safer status, poaching and logging are still rampant; the whole pristine region is at threat for conversion for agriculture. The valley though, still contains rare wildlife in its most remote areas. Some of the rarest inhabitants of SE asian forests – Sun Bears, Clouded Leopards, Marbled and Asiatic Golden Cats, Hog Badgers, Leaf Muntjacs, Eastern Hoolock Gibbons, Asiatic Elephants, Wild Water Buffalo, and more – still cling on (their only other stronghold in the region is Namdapha NP, just across the border in India). It’s thought that there may still be a handful of Bengal Tigers still in this vast wilderness. The Hukawng Valley was the last stand for the now critically endangered Sumatran Rhinoceros in mainland Asia, which now only occurs in Borneo and Sumatra. Traveling north, the lowland forests give way to thick, montane coniferous forests, dominated by rare firs and pines with a thick understory. The terrain drastically changes too, with lowlands giving way to rugged foothills. This is perhaps the most diverse region in the whole Himalaya. The wildlife of different worlds – North, South, East, and West meets here, and interacts like no other in one of Asia’s, if not the worlds, richest wildlife communities. The list of mammals here goes on and on – (endemic) Mishmi Takin, Asiatic Wild Dogs,  (both endemic) Gongshan and Leaf Muntjacs, Black Musk Deer (endemic), Himalayan and (endemic) Red Serow, (endemic) Red Goral, Clouded Leopards, Asiatic Golden and Marbled Cats, Leopards, Asiatic Black Bears, Malayan Sun Bears, Himalayan Black Bears, Red Pandas, Flying Squirrels, Spotted Linsangs (rare civet-like animals), Binturongs, (endemic) Eastern Hoolock Gibbons, Capped Langur, (endemic) the little known Shortridge’s Langur, and the recently discovered (first photographed in 2010!) Burma Snub-nosed Monkey, one of the most endangered, least-known, and elusive primates on Earth which is only found in these hill forests. Once above the tree line, we enter habitat more characteristic of the Himalaya. Wildlife up here has to be adapted to some of the harshest conditions on Earth. Alpine Musk Deer, Chinese Goral, Blue Sheep, and the legendary Snow Leopard, are some of the few mammals that can scrape out a living here.

In a cruel twist of fate though, these forests, occurring in one of the most remote, unknown parts of one of the most isolated nations on Earth, are at great risk. A recent Chinese mining project plans to construct roads through the virgin hill forests, putting all of the rare inhabitants of these areas at risk. If the populations here of many of the species disappear, it might as well be the end for several rare species, which will be forced to cling onto fragmented pockets of habitat in their western extent, in Arunachal Pradesh (here they are endangered too). The only way to save these animals, and many more, is to advocate the establishment of large, well protected forest reserves and national parks here – this will be the only way to protect what little is left of one of very few relatively intact, pristine, biodiverse ecosystems on Earth. With the “new” Burma opening up to the international world after years of secrecy, one can only hope for changes for the better. There is cause to hope for a different fate for this area: Burmese protesters are trying to rally support for these fascinating region, and hope to provide it the protection it deserves. While I do not agree with most of their actions, particularly violence, I hope that whether or not it is caused by them, protected areas do become established and such ill-planned, executed, and dangerous mining projects be outlawed. May protection come quickly and properly to these amazing wildernesses.

Until next time,

Venkat