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Farewell the Rhino

December 30, 2011

Quietly, without ritual or public fanfare, the Western Black Rhino this year was officially declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. None are believed left in the wild.

To borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, the world will little note, nor long remember the passage of the Western Black Rhino. No major news outlet listed it among the top 10 or 100 news stories for 2011. It didn't even make front page headlines on the day its extinction was officially announced. After all, it's not as if we had extinguished the last wild rhino on the face of the planet.

But that day may be coming. An environmental journalist for National Geographic reported a few weeks ago that "It has been a bad year for rhinos in South Africa." As of a few weeks ago an estimated 433 rhinos had been killed in 2011, a hundred more than in 2010. With an estimated 20,000 rhinos now left in South Africa, it's possible that other rhino species and subspecies will one day follow the Western Black Rhinos, a subspecies, into oblivion. Asian rhinos are also in jeopardy.

Unfortunately for the rhino, its horns are believed by some to cure or prevent cancer. Still others believe that it is an aphrodisiac or a cure for gout. A news report this week indicates that the "street value of rhinoceros horns has soared to about $65,000 a kilogram (2.2 pounds), making it more expensive than gold, platinum and in many cases cocaine..."

The culprits, of course, are the poachers and the traffickers who are trying to cash in on the rhino horns, and the buyers who support the illegal trade.

The hope is that increased enforcement by game officials in South Africa and elsewhere will eventually curb the poaching and save the rhinos from extinction. The poachers, however, are strongly motivated and heavily armed. It's hard to be very optimistic.

When we read these stories most of us have little or no sympathy for the poachers who prowl South Africa's border with Mozambique, nor should we, but most of us -- unlike many of the poachers -- are not struggling desperately to feed our families. Human economic necessity, as much as greed, may be killing the rhinos.

The larger question that needs to be pondered is not the fate of the rhinos, as important as that it is; it's what the human species is doing to the planet and to all the creatures that make this planet their home. For years now, leading biologists have been warning that human activity is triggering the "sixth mass extinction" in the history of the planet and the first mass extinction since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago. By some estimates, we are killing off species at 100 or even 1000 times the natural rate of extinction. E.O. Wilson, the noted Harvard biologist, warned years ago that if current rates of human destruction of the biosphere are not reduced, one-half of all species of life on earth will be extinct in 100 years.

The nations that signed the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity have pledged to reduce the rate of plant and animal extinction, but we are not winning the war against biodiversity loss. The UN reported last year that there was "no indication of a significant reduction in the rate of decline in biodiversity."

As inexorably as a comet follows its orbit, we are steadily destroying animal habitats in an effort to fulfill our expanding appetite for food, energy, and natural resources, but unlike the comet that destroyed the dinosaurs, we can change our trajectory. We can reduce our numbers by making family planning services more widely available to women who want to avoid a pregnancy, we can reduce our ecological footprints by changing our consumption patterns, and we can marshal the resources needed to maintain wildlife preserves.

But will we do so in time to avert a major ecological and human disaster? Not as long as we push stories like the extinction of the Western Black Rhino off the front page, and ignore how our human numbers and our material aspirations are endangering other animal species.

Farewell the rhino.

This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on December 30, 2011 on The Huffington Post.

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