African Rhino Numbers Rise, Yet One Type Sinks Into Extinction

GLAND, Switzerland, June 17, 2008 (ENS) – Populations of most African rhinos are increasing as a result of conservation efforts, but one sub-species, the Northern white rhino, may already be extinct, the world’s most expert rhino specialists said today. Just four animals were counted in 2006, but none of these could be found during the most recent fieldwork in the Congolese park where they lived.

There are now more than 21,000 rhinos across Africa, according to figures complied by the African Rhino Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, based in Gland.

Southern white rhino with calf (Photo by
Martin Harvey © WWF-Canon)

The group of rhino experts are part of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, a network of conservation experts brought together to work against the species extinction crisis.

Numbers of the white rhino, Ceratotherium simum, have increased from 14,540 animals counted in 2005 to 17,480 animals found in 2007, the specialists say.

Living in protected areas and private game reserves, the white rhino is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, but one of its two subspecies, the Northern white rhino, Ceratotherium simum cottoni, is listed as Critically Endangered and is on the brink of extinction.

Once found in several countries in East and Central Africa south of the Sahara desert, the wild population of Northern white rhino numbered about 500 animals in the 1970s.

Now, the Northern white rhino is restricted in the wild to Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the only remaining population was reduced by poaching from 30 in April 2003 to only four confirmed animals by August 2006.

“Worryingly, recent fieldwork has so far failed to find any presence of these four remaining rhinos,” says Dr. Martin Brooks, chair of the African Rhino Specialist Group.

“Unless animals are found during the intensive surveys that are planned under the direction of the African Parks Foundation, the subspecies may be doomed to extinction,” he said.

By contrast, the other subspecies, the Southern white rhino, Ceratotherium simum simum, continues to increase in numbers and range.

Southern white rhinos are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List, which means that they are not presently classed as Endangered or Vulnerable to extinction, but may qualify for a threatened category in the near future.

Northern white rhinoceros in Garamba National
Park (Photo by Kes & Fraser Smith ©

The southern white rhino is considered one of conservation’s greatest success stories. Thought to be extinct in the late 19th century, in 1895 a small population of less than 100 animals was discovered in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. After more than a century of protection and management, the southern white rhinos are now the only non-endangered rhinos.

Numbers of the African black rhino, Diceros bicornis, have increased from 3,730 animals found in 2005 to 4,180 counted in 2007, although this species still remains Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

In the last two years alone, numbers of black rhinos have risen by about 450 animals, with several new populations being founded or enhanced through translocation, such as in North Luangwa National Park, Zambia.

“This is fantastic news for the African black rhino,” says Dr. Richard Emslie, scientific officer of the African Rhino Specialist Group. “However, these magnificent creatures are not out of the woods yet. They are still classed as Critically Endangered and face increasing threats of poaching and civil unrest. There is no room for complacency.”

African black rhino with calf (Photo by
Andrew Gell courtesy International
Rhino Foundation)

The majority of African black rhino can be found in four countries – Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Kenya – and there are increasing numbers in a number of other range states. All countries with breeding populations have recorded increases, except Zimbabwe, whose numbers are slightly down.

Poaching for rhino horn remains the main threat to rhino survival, and while under control in many countries it has been responsible for losses in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe.

“Even though protection from poaching is critical, effective rhino conservation must also include intensive monitoring and biological management to ensure annual growth rates of at least five percent per year so that surplus rhinos are made available to create new populations,” says Brooks.

At a recent meeting of African rhino specialists at Lake Manyara, opened by Tanzania’s Minister for National Resources and Tourism Shamsa Mwangunga, and sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, WWF’s African Rhino Programme, and the Tanzanian government, delegates from 14 countries were exposed to a variety of management strategies, programs and techniques designed to improve rhino management.

“One of the highlights,” says Dr. Brooks, “was the first ever introduction of a significant founder population of black rhino to community land in South Africa, made possible through the WWF/Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s range expansion project, and hopefully this approach can be applied elsewhere to enhance rhino ownership by rural communities.”

Workshops were also held to identify conservation priorities and to address challenges relating to legal and illegal trade.

The Northern white rhino is not the only subspecies that is on the brink of extinction. The West African black rhino, D. bicornis longipes, is classified as Probably Extinct, according to the WWF African Rhino Programme.

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