It is possibly the rarest mammal on Earth. There are only an estimated 44 Javan rhino left clinging onto existence in a tiny forest reserve on the western tip of the island. Its future as a species looks bleak. And with rhino horn now estimated to be worth more per unit than cocaine, gold, or even diamonds, the chances for the four other rhino species is far from secure.
We simply cannot keep on with business as usual, and something serious needs to change. These are the findings of a recent report published in the journal Science Advances. “Without radical intervention, large herbivores (and many smaller ones) will continue to disappear from numerous regions with enormous ecological, social, and economic costs,” conclude the authors.
We are in very real danger of losing many more of our large herbivores, including the iconic savannah elephant and African rhinos, within just 20 years. This would be a tragic loss, not just to us as the species to have driven them out, but also the habitats and ecosystems that they maintain. As major environmental engineers, if elephants go extinct, then many other species that rely on them to disperse seeds and clear forests will also bite the dust.
The researchers identify many causes for these declines, but a sinister development is the very real involvement of organized crime. With rhino horn now worth an estimated $65,000 (£41,000) per kilogram (2.2lb) in 2012, it has become a horribly lucrative trade. With such massive financial rewards, poachers are using ever increasingly sophisticated methods to obtain the horns, including the use of tranquilizers and helicopters and even raiding museums.
In fact, so much money is made through the illegal trade in wildlife that it is often said to be “the third most valuable illicit commerce behind drugs and arms,” according to Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network. In addition to this, say the authors of the study, large herbivores are facing an onslaught from increasing human populations, habitat destruction, and encroachment from livestock.
The researchers, from UCLA, report that there are an “estimated 3.6 billion ruminant livestock [sheep and cattle] on Earth today, and about 25 million have been added to the planet every year for the last 50 years.” Those are astonishing figures, and it all stacks up. According to Blaire Van Valkenburgh, who co-authored the research, they were staggered to find that 60% of species of herbivore over 100 kilograms (220lb) are under threat from extinction.
“I certainly was taken aback by the data,” Van Valkenburgh said. “For some of the largest animals, such as elephants and rhinos, it is likely a matter of a few decades before they are extinct — and no more than 80 to 100 years for the rest of the large herbivores. Even though an individual elephant or rhino might persist in the wild somewhere in Africa, they will be functionally extinct in terms of their impact on the ecosystem.”
But what can be done? It seems like an impossible task to try to stem the trade in wildlife. But the same could have been said a few years back when looking at the massive trade in shark fins in Asia, and yet the past few years have seen sales of the product slump. So it can be done if the will and desire are there; we simply need to stoke them.