Are rhinos too valuable to survive?

November 13, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff Correspondent

HWANGE NATIONAL PARK, Zimbabwe -- Ecologist Stewart Towindo raises the antenna into the air and listens to the beeps from his radio receiver. Silently, he indicates the direction.

Veteran tracker Million Sibanda lets some sand drift through his fingers to make sure that the smells of human sweat and `D sunscreen are still downwind. He notes a few fresh tracks in the dirt.

Then he smiles and points up ahead. There they were, rhinoceroses No. 21 and No. 24, munching on leaves and branches and moving through the thick bush with graceful ease.

A close encounter with a rhino is perhaps the most striking moment of a trip into the African bush, evoking a time in the distant evolutionary past when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

But, when it comes to winning sympathy in the international conservation community, the solitary, stoic rhino has an image problem.

"The rhinoceros just can't compete for charisma with the elephant," says Glen Tatham, chief warden of Zimbabwe's parks. "What gets to me is that the rhinoceros does no one any harm, doesn't . . . trample down fences or disturb agriculture. And yet man is about to wipe these animals out."

The elephant does all those destructive things, regularly ruining a year's harvest in a night of foraging among villages near game parks.

Yet among those who pay any attention to the fate of African wildlife, it is the elephant that gets the most sympathy.

"I think it's because people identify with the elephant," said Drew Conybeare, a rhino conservation consultant to the Zimbabwe Parks Department. "Their life span is about the same as humans'. They have matriarchal family units. People respond to that."

That is why the elephant is once again expected to dominate the agenda of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a two-week biannual conference that has drawn representatives from over 122 countries to its current meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Ivory ban opposed

In a highly publicized move five years ago, CITES banned international trade in ivory to combat elephant poaching. Animal rights groups trumpet the ban as a resounding success.

But countries in southern Africa oppose the ban because it eliminates an important revenue source for conservation efforts to cull the herds and help protect the species.

This year, South Africa is asking CITES to allow it to trade in non-ivory elephant products, a proposal that is likely to attract the most attention at the conference.

But, consider this: Africa has 600,000 elephants; it has fewer than 3,000 black rhinos like Nos. 21 and 24, down from 65,000 in 1970.

This cow and her calf get their rather prosaic names from the frequency emitted by the small radio transmitters strapped to their necks.

Just 300 left

It is one of the ways Zimbabwe is trying to protect the 300 black rhinos left in this country, down from 2,000 just three years ago. That's when the poachers finished off Zambia's rhinos and began moving across the Zambezi River into Zimbabwe.

They kill the rhinos for their horns. Ground into a fine powder, rhino horn -- basically keratin, the stuff of human fingernails -- is thought in the Far East to have medicinal powers.

Trade in rhino horn has been banned for almost two decades by CITES but the ban has failed because for impoverished Africans the business is too lucrative.

Powdered horn goes for about $3,000 a pound in Taiwan, many times the annual income of many Africans.

Blamed for decline

"I can't see how CITES had done the rhino any good at all," said Norman English, chief warden at the Sinamatella camp in this national park. "Right about the time they put in that ban is when the population really started declining."

If this really is the black rhino's last stand, then Mr. English is a rather pessimistic Custer.

He is in charge of one of Zimbabwe's four Intensive Protection Zones (IPZ), areas in national parks where about half the country's rhinos get special attention. The rest are on private land.

All have been darted with drugs, fitted with radio collars and been de-horned. They get beefed-up armed patrols designed to stop poaching. No Zimbabwean rhinos have been poached since the IPZs were set up earlier this year.

But Mr. English said that he needs more than 60 people to adequately protect the 50 or so rhinos in his 650-square-mile zone. His budget gives him about half that number, with little money to equip them adequately.

Decisions are political

Mr. English complains that he could have enough scouts, all properly equipped, for the price of a few of the CITES delegates' airline fares to Fort Lauderdale.

What irks many in Zimbabwe's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management is their belief that CITES makes decisions not on the basis of what's best for the animals, but on the basis of what's best for the politicians.

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