At the beginning of the 20th century many people thought the white rhinoceros had gone completely extinct. Turns out there were just a few left . . . on the order of a few hundred . . . and throughout the last 120 years, there has been a concerted effort to boost the population numbers to sustainable levels.
But now with global human populations hovering just above 7 billion, it’s absolutely critical that we continue to work collectively to support healthy populations of rhino throughout the world.
So how do we do it?
How do we ensure a healthy population of rhinos going forward in todays world?
As always, the best first step moving forward, is to take stock of where you’re at. And luckily for us, technology can provide some great tools . . . namely blood work to test for sterility and a number of other medical diagnostics.
When it comes to assessing a population, it’s important to understand the fertility and genetic diversity of a localized species. A wildlife conservation group like ours must understand the intricacies of birth rates, gestation periods, stress levels, and diet. For the white rhino, which our South Africa project team is heavily involved in increasing populations, females reach sexual maturity at 6–7 years of age while males reach sexual maturity between 10–12 years of age. Gestation periods of a white rhino is 16 months. Almost twice that of a human being.
So, with these basic understandings in mind, it can take quite a while for populations to increase, especially given the stability of all other environmental considerations, including food availability, drought, human-wildlife conflict stressors (poaching), etc.
Even worse, many poachers are now using their own make-shift chloroform drugs to sedate the rhinos, and of course they do so without any knowledge of risks associated or proper dosages. This should come as no surprise, because the health of the rhino is not exactly a top priority for someone looking to cut a horn from a rhino.
Above all, doing blood work on these amazing creatures is critical to understanding the intricacies of their health and their diversity.
Why is genetic diversity important?
To keep is short, all living organisms carry a genetic blueprint and organisms exist in environments that vary in time and over space. Importantly, a diverse array of genetic blueprints appears to be especially critical in disease resistance . Genetically uniform populations (such as highly inbred populations) are famously vulnerable to diseases and pathogens, which can (and do) decimate populations in which all individuals are equally vulnerable.
Keeping an eye on this is essential to maintaining a healthy population of rhino, and if the blood work comes back as leaning towards vulnerabilities, it’s time to send some of the rhinos out into new separate populations, and to also bring some others in.
It is this genetic and blood work framework, along with the protection provided by our wpsWatch program, that we believe is the key to saving the white rhinoceros from extinction. And given the success in keeping poachers out of our partner properties, our team recently took part in darting all of the rhinos we work with in South Africa, in order to move forward in monitoring and encouraging births.
More on the specific results of that in the coming months.