Rhinos have become one of the high-profile wildlife stories of the year, fuelled by a steady stream of depressing images of once-impressive rhino reduced to a bloodied mess.
Heightened awareness among the general public is the dream for conservation biologists, who often struggle to generate widespread interest in their cause. But, while the media’s focus on the plight of Africa’s rhinos is commendable, it begs the question – why aren’t Asian rhino given the same attention?
There are three rhino species in Asia (the Indian, Javan and Sumatran) and two in Africa (white and black). They’re all fairly similar: all five eat plants, weigh up to 2.5 tonnes and have a thick protective skin.
Javan, Sumatran, and African black rhinos are classed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). And the IUCN’s most recent assessments were made before the latest surge in poaching,
So why are we in a situation where twice as many people attend Arsenal home games than there are rhino left in the wild? The recent surge has been driven by a relatively recent fad among the affluent middle classes of Vietnam, who consume ground rhino horn in drinks either as an aphrodisiac or hangover cure.
Yet despite Asian species appearing to be in a more perilous situation statistically, conservation spending on rhino appears heavily weighted towards African species.
More than 80% of money distributed by Save the Rhino between 2008-09 and 2012-13 went to programmes supporting conservation in Africa. Why? Even before the resurgence of rhino poaching in Africa, spending was biased towards the continent.
It would be wrong to assume we have given up hope for the future of the species in Asia. Action plans exist for the Asian Rhino and governments and charities have committed to trying to conserve the species, by supporting dedicated rhino protection units.
The recovery of the one-horned rhino in Nepal – numbers are at their highest since the 1950s – is a result of the effectiveness of such measures, but you wouldn’t know it as hardly anyone reported it.
So why are media outlets and conservation organisations focusing on African Rhino? Corruption, a recognised inhibitor to effective conservation, is arguably comparable in the regions that African and Asian species are found and can’t be used as an excuse. I also highly doubt that the global public value Asian species any less than African. It mainly comes down to one thing: money from tourism.
The drive of tourism
Africa is largely made up of developing countries whose economies are based on agricultural, rather than industrial, output. Consequently tourism is an important stream of revenue for governments, private businesses and local people.
According to the World Tourism Organisation, wildlife watching represents 80% of annual sales for tour companies to Africa. The “big five” – lions, elephants, buffalo, leopards and rhino – are big money.
In Indonesia and Nepal, where most of Asia’s wild rhinos live, tourists are mostly there for the beaches or the mountains. They simply aren’t as reliant on safari-dollars as a country like Botswana.
The African rhino is therefore a perfect example of utilitarian-based conservation – the preservation of something because of its monetary value to humans. They are worth more, to more people, than their Asian counterparts and are as a result the focus of more conservation efforts.
This isn’t a criticism of those who invest huge amounts of time and effort protecting Africa’s rhinos. They undoubtedly believe in what they are doing and don’t want to see recent successes destroyed by a surge in poaching.
But there is a trade off. The case of the African versus the Asian rhino exposes a complex side to conservation, one which the majority of people simply aren’t aware of.
The conservation of one species over another due its monetary value being higher, distracts from what the main reason to preserve biodiversity should be, and what I think the majority of conservationists believe in – because its loss is simply wrong.