Every three years, nations meet under the banner of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Each Conference of the Parties (CoP) is a massive opportunity for threatened species of plants and animals to have their trade prohibited or heavily regulated, to ensure the species does not...
For the last few years rumours have swirled around the relocation of rhinos from Africa to Australia. It’s the kind of idea the media loves – Aussies to the rescue in saving one of the world’s most adored animals – and articles have abounded with headlines such as ‘80 rhinos headed for Australia in bold move to save species’ and ‘Threatened rhinos earmarked for Monarto under project to save them from African poachers’.
Former Minister for the Environment Josh Frydenberg even got amongst the hype, hosting Jean-Claude Van Damme to discuss Australia being the “perfect place” to bring the embattled animals. Van Damme isn’t the only celebrity to throw their name behind the idea, with cricketer Kevin Pietersen and surf champion Stephanie Gilmore among others involved.
So what’s the problem? Rhinos are in trouble in Africa and they’ll surely be safer in Australia, right? Or have we become carried away with a romanticised notion blinding us to the perils of plans which are essentially neo-colonialism in the guise of conservation? China leases pandas out for significant funds and regulations in Australia protect our wildlife from reckless exports, so why do we feel it’s ok to take such a key biological asset from Africa?
The projects may be being planned with the best intentions, but they are sadly misguided.
For starters, getting rhinos here sees money and public attention diverted away from the problems we need to tackle, primarily poaching. One organisation is aiming to raise $100,000 to translocate each of 80 rhinos – that $8 million required just to get the rhinos to Australia is nearly four times the anti-poaching budget for South African National Parks!
The IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group doesn’t list trans-continental translocation among its recommended conservation actions. It does however recommend investing in in-situ conservation. With increased support, community-based rhino conservation initiatives can continue to lead the way. It is money that is missing, not the will to conserve rhinos or the expertise necessary to do so. Using the funding proposed for Australian translocations to support locally-led conservation or to educate people to reduce consumer demand for rhino horn in Asia would make far more difference.
We need to listen to the experts and use limited funds, privately raised or otherwise, as effectively as possible. It’s clear that spending on anti-poaching activities in Africa is the way to go, and unfortunate that corporate interests have thrown their weight behind PR-ready relocation plans instead of more effective management.
Additionally, the southern white rhino subspecies that is typically the focus of these proposals is arguably the rhino species least in need of our help. Despite high poaching levels the population estimate is stable at more than 20,000, and there are already 800 southern white rhinos in zoos around the world – all with as much chance of being returned to Africa for conservation purposes as any that might be destined for Australia. The idea appears to be more about getting animals in zoos to bring in the paying public than conservation.
And if we did attempt to bring the rhinos over, what fate would await them?
Australia doesn’t have a fantastic record with rhino importations. Of two black rhinos acquired by Adelaide Zoo in 1929, one died in Melbourne on the way and the other survived just two weeks. This was admittedly some time ago, but we haven’t got much better at moving these majestic animals, as evidenced by the distressing news in July that all 11 rhinos involved in a Kenyan translocation died within weeks of their arrival. Such relocations are safer than the long trip to Australia, and more justifiable due to their solely conservation-based intentions such as supplementing small populations and re-introducing species into their former range. Issues with survival at this scale illustrate the serious risk of flying rhinos long distances.
There is also no guarantee moving rhinos to Australia will keep them safe. In 2007, a greater one-horned rhinoceros at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo died a cruel death, with an autopsy finding the animal was pregnant and had 70 litres of sand in its intestines. In 2012 sudden deaths of four of the seven white rhinos at Taronga Western Plain Zoo occurred after they showed signs of neurological abnormalities in the weeks prior. Despite ruling out several causes of death, what actually happened was either not determined or kept under wraps. And only months ago a rhino calf named Rajah, the first greater one-horned rhino to be born in Australia, died at Taronga Western Plains Zoo aged just one due to complications arising from a tetanus infection.
Australia is clearly not a paradise for rhinos. And besides, it would be rather hypocritical to pose as a knight in shining armour for African wildlife while we boast one of the worst extinction records in the world and continue to fail at managing local threats to biodiversity such as rampant land clearing.
When it comes down to it, it’s simply wrong to spend a fortune bringing African rhinos over to Australia to spend their lives (assuming they make it) in zoos. These proposals, while well-intentioned, need to be consigned to history.
Blog image: A plan to relocate 80 rhinos to Australia would cost an estimated $8 million, which is nearly four times the South African National Parks anti-poaching budget. Image: Southern White Rhino at SanWild Wildlife Sanctuary.