Often, the numbers seem to look bad for African rhinos. Right now, the statistics show that these animals are rapidly declining in core, state-run reserves, such as South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Currently—much like with tigers—more than half of the continent’s remaining rhinoceroses are now on private lands. That’s a sobering fact, but luckily it also opens some new opportunities for rhino conservation.
There’s another connection I’d like to make between the present state of rhinos and big cats. While private landowners are now the most abundant and closest caretakers of these pachyderms, it appears that the average person’s appetite to once again live near large carnivores is increasing.
Until the past decade, the largest population of rhinos was found in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. But like the tourists from all over the world who visit this park to view the rhinos (among other species), poachers have been drawn there, too. Over the past 10 years, Kruger has lost 76 percent of its white rhinos and 68 percent of its black rhinos.
To conserve rhinos, conservation authorities in African countries where the animals occur have had to resort to drastic and innovative measures. Many rhinos have been moved out of national parks and protected areas, such as Kruger, and relocated in reserves in neighboring countries or on privately held game farms. That means that private landowners now hold at least half of the continent’s remaining rhinos; and communal lands conserve a growing proportion, as well.
In a new article published in January 2023 in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, scientists from Finland’s University of Helsinki and Stellenbosch University and Nelson Mandela University in South Africa compiled publicly available rhino population data for African countries where rhinos live, separated by communal, private and state land types where possible.
The good news is that communal and private landowners in several southern and East African countries can now generate revenues from wildlife-based tourism and hunting, as well as from selling the meat and trophies from their wild animals, making it financially viable to use their land for conserving wildlife rather than for farming livestock. The result of that, say the scientists, is that hundreds of landowners will be encouraged to conserve rhinos on their properties.
Unfortunately, though, the cost-benefit ratio of conserving rhinos is changing. Accelerating poaching has meant private rhino owners now spend on average $150,000 per year on security measures. This is far more than government parks can spend per rhino or per unit of area conserved. Combined with the generally smaller size of private rhino lands (averaging 38 square miles), which likely makes them easier to protect than places such as Kruger (77,220 square miles), this spending on security means private rhino populations have suffered lower poaching rates than in some core, state-run parks. But rising security costs means that many landowners may not be willing or able to continue conserving rhinos. If any of these aforementioned activities (wildlife tourism, hunting or sales of meat and trophies) were to be disallowed in future, many private owners would not make enough income to cover the expenses involved in keeping and protecting rhinos. Some, in fact, have already chosen to sell their rhinos, often at a loss.
The researchers say that it is important to consider the implications of this emerging shift in rhino conservation from state to communal and private lands for charting a new path for rhino conservation. Future policies, they state, should enable new incentives that compensate private landowners for rising security costs. For example, could landowners that conserve rhinos in extensive systems qualify for a more favorable tax structure? Could they be eligible for carbon or the emerging biodiversity credits or rhino bonds, given the role of rhinos in carbon cycling? Could they receive management certifications that increase the value of their wildlife-based tourism offerings?
The stakes are high: if such additional incentives are not instituted, we risk losing some key rhino custodians; and with them, half of the remaining African rhinos.
Big cat cohabitation
There’s another new, groundbreaking study that was published in January 2023. In the science journal Nature Communications, researchers from the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology in Bailrigg, England, and the Instituto de Biologia Subtropical in Argentina have found that economic and social factors—such as quality of life—were more closely associated with declines of large carnivore species than purely environmental ones, such as habitat loss.
This unique study finds that as people get richer, their tolerance for big cats and other larger carnivores increases. So, the best way to save animals such as bears, lions, lynx and tigers is to encourage a sustainable model of economic and social development, rather than focusing only on issues such as climate change.
While rapid economic development has delivered enormous improvements in the quality of our lives, it also pushes species to the brink of extinction. This has driven biodiversity declines. But, say the scientists, their research shows that this quick economic development is causing far more extreme declines than anyone expected or imagined.
During rapid economic development, people appear to become less tolerant of large carnivores, and it’s suspected that incidences of persecution and poaching skyrocket. Lions and tigers are already absent from more than 90 percent of their historic ranges. In the United Kingdom, bears, lynx and wolves have been hunted into extinction.
However, once people achieve a high quality of life and economic development slows, a turning point is reached; and persecuted species have an opportunity to recover. That recovery is partly linked to improved habitat protection in advanced economies, but it’s also due to a more harmonious relationship between people and carnivores. What would once have been considered a dangerous pest is then viewed as an important component of one’s culture and ecosystem.
The resurgence of large carnivores can already be seen in western Europe, where an improved quality of life and slower economic development has allowed populations of gray wolves to increase 1,800 percent since the 1960s. The scientists say that this gives them hope that lost ecosystems can be restored and that one day they might see vanished carnivores return to British shores. But it’s also imperative that we think about how we can save wildlife in countries currently experiencing rapid growth, where species extinctions are highly likely.
Of course, while a slower, more sustainable economic model can protect carnivore populations, it also risks locking people into poverty for longer. We urgently need to develop solutions that can support both biodiversity and people; and, perhaps, the world’s economically advanced nations need to offer more financial aid to protect biodiversity worldwide.
Big cats and rhinos are legitimate contenders for Africa’s most powerful animal. But more and more, these mighty beings are being forced to live closer and closer to us.
Let’s hope we make that a good thing for them. Because having more of nature and the wild in our lives is surely beneficial for us.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,