Some of you may have recently read that the last male northern white rhinoceros, called Sudan, was put down due to age-related ailments. The northern white rhinoceros is a a now functionally-extinct subspecies of the white rhinoceros, with only two females remaining. This day was imminent – with such a small surviving population size, their chances to recover seemed unlikely. However, what has been ignored by several media outlets is that the southern white rhino is something of a conservation success story. It is still argued whether or not the southern and northern white rhinos represent subspecies of the white rhino, or whether they are two entirely separate species. For arguments sake, we are going to assume, using current knowledge, that they are both closely related subspecies.
Let’s start with the southern white rhino, which experienced a population crash, with reports from the early 1900s that as little as 50-100 individuals remaining in the wild. But, thanks to population recovery efforts across the globe, the southern white rhinos have bounced back, with a population size today amounting to over 21,000! Of course, with so many rhinos in such a small place, many have been reintroduced to previous areas of their range. Their status on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List has also been down-listed to Near Threatened, and, despite this, population efforts remain ongoing in order to safeguard the rhinos for the future in light of illegal ivory poaching. These efforts are in need of worthy celebrations, but this message – that rhino conservation is working – is difficult to portray to individuals.
It may come of a surprise to you, but there are three smaller rhino species living within Asia, aside from the two in Africa. The Sumatran rhinoceros is the only living rhino species left which is woolly; most people would have thought that the last of these died out at the end of the last ice age but in fact, they are clinging on in south-east Asia. They are now listed as Critically Endangered, with only five substantial populations remaining in the wild: four on Sumatra and one on Borneo. Their rainforest homes have slowly been reduced as humans have expanded agriculture and cities in the previous range of the species. Their numbers are a lot more difficult to determine, as they are solitary animals which are widely scattered throughout their range – however, there are estimates that fewer than 100 animals remain. This species represents a group with no other living members: the woolly rhinos. When they become extinct, will we see the same media outcry? We are starting down the slippery slope to extinction, and now is the time to act, before they too are just another casualty of the Anthropocene.