This week’s arrival in Kenya of one of the most endangered animals left on earth was not the cute Christmas present the world media reported.
In fact, the relocation of 4 of the remaining 8 northern white rhino in existence, into a country where poaching is becoming epidemic, may be one of the most stupid moves the conservation world has ever engineered.
The four northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) came from a zoo in the Czech Republic. The only other place that this subspecies of rhino survives is in the San Diego Wild Animal Park. There are none in the wild.
Eight life forms is statistically impossible to propagate. What is hoped is that some of the genes of this subspecies will get preserved if the four animals breed with other rhino subspecies. It is known, for example, that this highly endangered animal is immune to tse-tse fly transmitted diseases, whereas its less endangered cousins in Africa are not.
“It makes no sense to move them at this point .. It’s way too little, too late,” said Randy Rieches, curator of mammals for the San Diego Wild Animal Park, which has two northern whites.
Rieches and a host of other scientists have been fighting this move for months. Lately the argument has been a financial one, with proponents claiming that the quarter million dollar cost of the move is insignificant compared to the chance they might breed, and critics claiming the cost of the move is being grossly underestimated and is diverting resources from other much needed conservation efforts.
Funds were raised from just a handful of individuals, including the vice chairman of Goldman Sachs of Australia and Berry White, a controversial animal activist nicknamed the “rhino whisperer.” The effort was coordinated by Rob Brett, the director of Fauna and Flora International.
This is stupid.
There has been some reluctance to embrace Rieches’ many astute and scientific criticisms for fear this is not a scientific but a PR question, and that San Diego lost out to the Czech zoo. This is rhinowash.
The four animals transported to Kenya haven’t bred in 30 years. While they are being transported into a private reserve (Ol Pejeta) which has a good record of captive rhino maintenance, it is still in Kenya, and even better reserves near Ol Pejeta like Solio have had poaching incidents.
As I’ve often written poaching isn’t just a Darth Vader pastime. It increases in times of economic stress, and need we be reminded of the current times?
Rhino are one of the easiest animals on the African veld to poach. And the horn is worth more than its weight in gold.
So I consider the risk ridiculous. And as for preserving the gene pool of this subspecies, there are more conservative ways that are much less expensive, such as DNA deep-freeze. There is little research on cloning rhino, but the chances (the “statistical” chance) of one day cloning a rhino from its preserved DNA is astronomically greater than hoping these four animals will breed into existing populations.
In fact zoos are one of the best places to breed rhinos, not a private tourist game ranch.
And much more DNA research needs to be done on rhinos, to move towards a genome that will specifically show the differences between the 8 world subspecies which are now mostly presumed from taxonomical differences. I fear that money is directing research, here, as individuals who probably spent less time reading the monographs on the controversy wrote checks to get their names emblazoned round the world as animal rescuers.
We just don’t seem to have the attention to read very far down the page. If there is some real value to saving these rhinos’ gene pool, flying them to Kenya is absolutely not the way to do it.