Conversation with IFAW rhino expert on World Rhino Day

Rhinos in Solio Game Reserve, Kenya

Dr. Joseph Okori, originator of World Rhino Day, joined IFAW earlier this year to lead our landscape conservation programme and our Southern Africa Regional office. He directs our work to save elephants, rhinos, lions and other African wildlife through the protection of critical landscapes, mitigation of human-wildlife conflict and ecologically sustainable community development projects. 

Prior to joining IFAW, Dr. Okori led the global rhino conservation programme and spearheaded Africa-Asia trans-continental partnerships on rhino and elephant conservation for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). To celebrate World Rhino Day, we sat down for a chat.

Q: How did you come to specialize in rhinos as a field veterinarian?

As I said in the video, I feel that rhinos are such amazing, majestic animals that once I decided I wanted to focus on a particular species as a wildlife vet, they were at the top of the list. They are unique in the world of animals. How can you not be impressed with their huge size, prehistoric look, distinctive horns and what appears to be armored plating on their bodies?

I’ve had the most experience with the black and white rhinos of Africa. Black rhinos can weigh up to 3,000 pounds and grow to six feet tall at the shoulders. White rhinos are much bigger – five to six feet tall and almost 8,000 pounds. Actually, calling them “black” and “white” is quite confusing: “white” comes from the Dutch "weit," meaning wide, a reference to this species’ wide, square muzzle adapted for grazing on short grasses. They are gray in color. The black rhino is also gray but has a strong hooked lip, a perfect adaptation for eating twigs, shrubs and bushes.

In all rhino species, the females tend to be gentle and caring mothers. Males are very territorial and can be aggressive when they sense a threat. But, compared to buffaloes and hippos, rhinos are far more predictable. The only serious predators rhinos face in the wild are human beings. I have to say, that fact makes we want to help them survive, as individuals and as a species at risk.

Q: We know that rhino populations have plummeted. Can the species make a comeback?

Yes, I believe so. They’ve been on Earth for 30 or 40 million years. They are the second largest land mammal: only elephants are bigger. All five species of rhino -- white, black, greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan – are in trouble, but they are tough and resilient animals. In Asia, Javan and Sumatran rhinos are “Critically Endangered.” In Africa, Southern white rhinos, once thought to be extinct, now thrive in protected sanctuaries and are classified as Near Threatened. Sadly, the Northern white rhino subspecies is extinct in the wild and only a few individuals remain in captivity in a sanctuary in Kenya. If we work together, we can ensure that rhinos can continue to live in the grasslands, savannahs and tropical forests of Africa, Northern India, Southern Nepal, Indonesia and Vietnam.

READ: Rhino horn auction all about profit, not protection nor conservation

Q: Do you think the future of rhino conservation has implications for human survival?

Yes, absolutely. In purely selfish terms, protecting rhinos is critical for the economic benefit of people and for the overall health of our planet’s biosphere, on which all animals, including humans, depend for survival.

Rhinos are a huge draw for tourism and local communities and conservation efforts benefit financially from that. Rhinos are a known as a flagship or umbrella species, an instantly recognizable and “charismatic” animal that IFAW and other conservation and animal welfare groups and agencies can use to raise funds. That money goes to protect, not only rhinos, but all the species that live alongside them as well as the landscapes they share.

Ecologically, all living things are part of a complex and interdependent network called the biosphere. The earth’s biosphere, in turn, is composed of countless ecosystems, which include plants and animals and their physical habitats. No one really knows how the extinction of an organism – a rhinoceros species, for example -- will affect the other members of its ecosystem. But we do know that the disappearance of a single species can set off a chain reaction that affects many others. The removal of rhinos can transform the ecological processes and mix of species in a wildlife community. Conversely, when rhinos are protected, many other species are too -- not only mammals but birds, reptiles, fish, insects and plants.

Philosophically, from the point of view of human ethics, aesthetics and the stewardship of life on Earth, I think each individual animal matters, each has intrinsic value, and each species is important in and of itself.

Q: What can we do to save rhinos from extinction?

Poaching and habitat loss are the major threats to the survival of rhinos everywhere. If we can bring these two threats under control, I think rhinos will be able to rebound. It won’t be easy but it can be done given the resources and political will.

Poaching is the immediate danger. Sophisticated poachers use helicopters, night-vision equipment, tranquilizers and gun silencers to kill rhinos in reserves without attracting the attention of wildlife law enforcement patrols. Increasing patrol frequency and efficiency is important. And enforcing stiffer penalties for poachers can help. Of course, if there was no demand for rhino horn, for which these creatures are killed, the poaching would end. IFAW and other NGOs are trying to break the illegal wildlife chain at each link – source, transit and end-user – through a variety of initiatives.

Stopping human encroachment on rhino habitats, establishing and expanding protected areas and relocating rhinos to safer habitats, as IFAW is doing in India’s Manas National Park, are also valuable steps in rhino conservation. Finally, promoting sustainable and responsible tourism can increase funding for rhino protection at both the national and local levels across their ranges. Rhino survival – like the survival of all wildlife and habitats -- really depends on what we humans do to conserve them, today and into the future. 

--CP

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