The saddening worldwide inactivity of many industries over the past year, as a measure of containment against Covid-19, fortunately, has had considerable positive effects on poaching and wildlife trafficking in some cases. This trend has been observed particularly in South Africa which is home to 80% of the continent’s rhino population, often brutally targeted for their horns that are still deemed to have medicinal uses in China and Vietnam. Wild populations of African and Asian rhinos once totaled to 500,000 at the start of the 20th century and are now merely 27,000. Overall, 394 rhinos were poached throughout 2020 in South Africa, a 33% decline compared to the previous year, as reported by BBC news. Dr Jo Shaw from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in South Africa refers to this as a “temporary pause” due to disruptions in illicit value chains as a result of lockdown traveling restrictions. The concerns of many as of my own, are that once tourism and travel resume to these destinations, so will the activity of poachers.
Rhinos are being driven to extinction and it’s happening fast. So fast that to this day, only 2 individuals of the Northern White rhino subspecies are left, Najin and Fatu, protected at all times in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. These two females once lived at the Dvur Kralove zoo in the Czech Republic together with other two males, before being transferred to Ol Pejeta in 2009, in the attempt to allow them to reconnect with their natural habitat, perhaps a more preferable environment for breeding. After several unsuccessful trials, both males passed away due to old age and related issues. The world now races against time in the hope of repopulating Africa’s savannas with Northern White rhinos, using artificially assisted reproduction. So far, so good, as 10 eggs from the females have been obtained and artificially inseminated at Avantea in Cremona, Italy. More news to come as we “wait to see if any viable embryo develops to the stage where it can be cryopreserved for later transfer”, says Cesare Galli from Avantea.
But why go to these lengths to save just one species? Other than its remarkable beauty and uniqueness, rhinos play a key role in African tourism as one of the members of the ‘Big 5’ which in turn, provides jobs to locals and overall promotes economic growth, as stated by the WWF. These animals are also largely responsible for shaping Africa’s landscapes, being one of the few mega herbivores left. Their grazing results in the growth of more nutrient-rich grasses, essential to the functioning of the whole ecosystem.
Rhinos are sometimes preemptively de-horned before poachers can get their hands on them, but this measure does have its impacts. This compromises a male rhino’s ability to attract potential mates, to defend itself against predators, to dig and forage through vegetation to feed itself and to establish its dominance over others in a group, a mechanism that avoids fighting and related mortality. It’s clear that de-horning will in the long-term undermine their survival, but perhaps make them less attractive to poachers.
Poaching unfortunately is a reality for many other species all over the world, with equally important roles in the ecosystems they live in, and for the human communities that rely on them. Studies reveal that elephant poaching continues to be a problem in Africa, although numbers reached a peak in 2011 and poaching incidents decreased last year in eastern countries. However, African elephant deaths caused by poaching on average still reach 30,000 annually out of what is now a population of 400,000, despite the international trade of ivory being banned since 1990.
These cruelties however are not limited just to larger species. Pangolins are not only small, gentle and harmless creatures, but are the planet’s most trafficked mammal. They’re about the size of a puppy and have armadillo-like features but are covered in scales made of keratin and much like rhino horns, they’re increasingly popular in China and Vietnam as medical remedies, from treating arthritis and wounds to convulsions and epilepsy. However, there is no scientific evidence to support these claims. Pangolins roam around tropical Asia and sub-Saharan Africa feeding on ants and termites. Previously, most of the poaching occurred in the Asian habitats but it later expanded to Africa, with many countries in between involved in trafficking these scales before they reach their final destination.
It’s hard to quantify how many scales have been smuggled via these illegal networks but National Geographic investigations suggest that 1,122,756 Pangolins have been poached from 2006 to 2015, just to give a rough idea. Pangolins must be protected at all costs also because they play a very important ecological and economic role for communities by acting as a biological control against termites, which otherwise would destroy crop fields and buildings if too abundant. In 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to ban all commercial trade but unfortunately, this was not sufficient to interrupt the illicit chains.
Pangolins are also considered bush meat in western and central Africa and a delicacy for wealthier people in some parts of Asia. As it has now become clearer than ever with the emergence of Covid-19, that the handling of wildlife can result in the transmission of naturally occurring diseases in wild animals to humans which has resulted in China temporarily banning the wildlife trade on the 26th of January 2020 to limit the risk and avoiding further potential health disasters. Hopefully, this might alter people’s views on wildlife meat consumption in future and decrease the demand and in turn, the poaching.
From 2020, the take-home message is that we need to find a way to allow tourism to continue whilst restricting the movements of poachers. Anti-poaching units are already involved in actively defending African parks but unfortunately many lives are often lost in the process. Another safer way to approach this issue could be through educating and sensitizing health care providers, patients and the general public about alternative and effective options to the wildlife parts used as remedies. Unfortunately, laws and bans have proved to not be sufficient in the past. Poachers are still willing to take the risk knowing that a single rhino horn is worth $60,000 per kilogram or sometimes more and with a growing demand for Pangolin scales. Providing less riskier work opportunities may help reduce the number of poachers together with reducing the demand.
These realities occur each year and have huge impacts on both wildlife populations and communities, although 2020 may have been an exception in some areas. As for us, one simple way in which we can contribute is by donating to conservation programs such as Ol Pejeta Conservancy, WWF and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which devote all their efforts to ensure that wildlife continues to thrive as it should.
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Mwihia, Joe (2020). Africa’s Endangered Wildlife At Risk as Tourism Dries Up. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-15/africa-s-endangered-wildlife-at-risk-as-tourism-dries-up (Accessed: Mar 11, 2021).
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