Lessons from the last rhino

From ToxicLeaks

A sad farewell to Sudan the rhino[edit | edit source]

It should never have been Sudan’s responsibility to become the global ambassador for biodiversity, but the northern white rhino living in Kenya was one of the most recognizable animals on earth. Sudan was three in 1975 when he was captured in the Shambe area of southern Sudan (the Shambe National Park is now in South Sudan) and taken to Zoo Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic for a breeding program. He was 45 when he died on March 19, 2018, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where he lived his final years in a 700-acre enclosure with Najin and Fatu, his daughter and her daughter. The two females have survived, but hopes for breeding any future northern white rhino rely on technology: Sudan was the last male.

By 2008, the northern white rhino was considered by most experts to be extinct in the wild, although there are academic questions about the real differences between the northern and southern species. The numbers across Uganda, Central African Republic, Sudan and Chad were wiped out by decades of poaching and conflict; the last remaining wild population of 20 to 30 rhinos living in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo died during the fighting in the 1990s and early 2000s. Sudan’s death came amid some new and urgent reminders that global biodiversity is declining across the planet.

UN reports: A dangerous decline in biodiversity[edit | edit source]

Just four days after Sudan’s death, a series of geographically-focused biodiversity assessment reports backed by the United Nations was approved in Medellín, Colombia, during the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) meeting. The group of 129 member nations said the research – with its dire findings – reflected three years of scientific work.

In the Americas, trends show dramatic habitat loss whether in the northern hemisphere’s near-total erasure of tall prairie grasslands, the south’s 17 percent loss of Amazon forest to human activities, or the coral reefs reduced to 10 percent of their original flourishing by 2003. That coral loss is acute in the Asia-Pacific region, where there will be zero fish in 30 years – none by 2048 – if current practices continue. A fourth of all mammals and 29 percent of all birds will be extinct if the loss of lowland forest isn’t halted.

In Europe and Central Asia, 42 percent of land animals and plants are known to have declined in the past decade. There’s a decline in 27 percent of fish species for which there is data, because of unsustainable fishing practices, habitat degradation, invasive alien species and other causes. And on Sudan’s home continent of Africa, 50 percent or more of bird and mammal species could be lost by the century’s end.

Climate change and future impacts[edit | edit source]

If the consequences of habitat loss, illegal trafficking and armed conflict on biodiversity were sobering in the past, the future may be catastrophic. Human-induced climate change is driving biodiversity loss deeper, the IPBES reports found. That creates a reciprocal problem for humans because biodiversity is the foundation for food, clean water and public health – and it’s worth billions to the global economy. In Africa, for example, the natural resources are a critical asset for much-needed human development.

“Africa is the last place on Earth with a wide range of large mammals, yet today there are more African plants, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and large mammals threatened than ever before by a range of both human-induced and natural causes,” said Dr. Emma Archer of South Africa, a report co-chair.

One of the studies in the assessment, published in the journal Science and based on 2 million records, found that 58.1 percent of Earth's land surface (home to 71.4 percent of current population) has pushed past “safe limits” and already lost enough biodiversity to question the land’s ability to support humans.

The link between biodiversity and climate change has long been acknowledged by the Convention on Biological Diversity, as warmer temperatures and rising seas are already driving species to adapt. Part of the necessary response means reducing other ecosystem pressures such as air and plastic pollution, the competition from invasive species, and the human exploitation of critical marine and land resources.

On biodiversity, a call to action and hope[edit | edit source]

The IPBES report also found evidence that conservation is working to protect some animals – the Amur tiger among them. By the 1940s, the number of tigers native to Russia’s east, northern China and Korea had dwindled to about 40. Russia acted and became the first country in the world to make the Amur tiger protected, and by the 1980s their populations increased to, and have maintained at, about 500.

In Democratic Republic of Congo, where Kahuzi Biega National Park protects the Eastern lowland gorilla – and across Africa’s reserves, where rangers risk their own lives to protect animals from other humans – every effort is made to keep animals like Sudan from dying out. Across the world, UNDP supports 400 programs in 130 countries geared toward protecting fragile ecosystems and reducing biodiversity loss. Yet the greatest source of hope comes from humans choosing to live sustainably, taking steps to reduce climate impacts, and working to create societies that will protect the species their own lives depend on.