Conservation without borders
For decades, zoos around the world have been united across political and cultural borders in their shared goal to protect threatened species through international cooperation. In this age of international endangered species programmes and digital media communication, it seems unthinkable that such an impressive animal as the rhinoceros could simply vanish off the face of the Earth. But this is exactly what is happening to the northern white rhinoceros today – it is dying out before our very eyes.
The last five
On its “Red List of Threatened Species”, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the five living species of rhino as follows: the white rhinoceros is “near threatened”, the Indian rhinoceros is “vulnerable”, and the Sumatran rhinoceros, Javan rhinoceros and black rhinoceros are all “critically endangered”. The Sumatran and the black rhino are in the most immediate danger, as their numbers in the wild have dropped drastically in recent decades. The maximum number of Sumatran rhinos left in the wild is estimated at 179; they live in areas of Sumatra, Borneo and possibly northern Myanmar. Reasons for their decline include loss of the rainforests that constitute their natural habitat, and poaching for their horns. At one time, the black rhino was more common than the white rhino. However, illegal poaching saw the black rhino population drop by more than 95 percent between 1970 and 1992. The lowest numbers were recorded in 1992 and 1993, when the wild population stood at approximately 2,500. Thanks to protective measures, the number of black rhinos alive in the wild today has increased to around 5,000.
Professionalization of poaching
Adult rhinos have no natural enemies in the wild – their one predator and the greatest threat to their survival is humans. Since 2008, southern and eastern Africa has been experiencing unprecedented levels of poaching. The losses are even more drastic than those witnessed during the crisis of the 1980s, impacting not only the black rhino, but also the white rhino and the African elephant. In the last eight years, poachers in Africa have killed at least 5,940 rhinoceroses. The main reason for this is the rising demand for rhino horn in Asian countries – Vietnam and China in particular. Unlike during the poaching crisis of the 1980s, the poachers active today have a mafia-like organisation and are very well equipped.
Help on the ground
To mark World Rhino Day on 22 September, we are addressing the question: What are Zoo Berlin and Tierpark Berlin doing to help protect the endangered megafauna? In cooperation with their partners, Berlin’s zoos are involved in two initiatives on the ground – or “in situ” as conservation experts call it. On the one hand, we are working with renowned non-profit organisation Save the Rhino International to help protect the Eastern black rhino from poaching by funding the training of park rangers – specifically those at the Ol Jogi Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. Ol Jogi is one of the oldest and most successful protected areas for rhinos in East Africa. The reserve covers more than 230 km² and is currently home to 49 black rhinos and 21 white rhinos. There are only about 750 of the Eastern back rhino subspecies left in Kenya and Tanzania – meaning that the 49 animals in Ol Jogi constitute a significant proportion of the entire East African population. Thanks to its innovative ring fencing system, Ol Jogi reported no losses to its rhino population from 1980 to 2011. In recent years, however, instances of poaching have increased. In response, the reserve hired more park rangers and introduced additional protective measures, such as guard dogs. But training and employing rangers costs money.
Lives on the line
“The trade in illicit wildlife products is a multi-billion dollar industry and is a global problem. One iconic species that has sufferred significantly in the last few years are the rhinos. Across Africa and indeed Asia, thousands of rhinos have been poached in recent years in a devastating trend towards extinction of some sub-species,” reports Jamie Gaymer, Wildlife and Security Manager at Ol Jogi Wildlife Conservancy. “Often forgotten, are the rangers who put their lives on the line to protect these animals; in fact over 1,000 rangers have lost their lives in the last 10 years alone. We are sincerely grateful to Zoo and Tierpark Berlin who are supporting the training of rangers in Ol Jogi Conservancy. This training will allow them to better protect themselves as well as the animals to which they are obligated.“
Tackling the root causes
Targeting the other side of the problem, Zoo and Tierpark Berlin also fund educational work in Vietnam – the strongest sales market alongside China – in an attempt to counteract the rising demand for rhino horn and thus reduce the incentive for illegal poaching. Via a network of local educational programmes, the initiative teaches predominantly young people about the rhinos’ plight and makes them aware of the impact of the poaching that is motivated by belief in the healing powers of rhino horn. This belief is ultimately just a superstition, as rhino horn is made of nothing but keratin – the same substance that makes up our hair and fingernails. The educational work is intended to encourage young people to help protect the rhino and denounce the illegal trade in rhino horn in Vietnam. This is important work, the full impact of which will only start to be seen when these Vietnamese youngsters reach adulthood. Cathy Dean, Director of Save the Rhino International, has expressed her heartfelt thanks to the Zoo and Tierpark:
“The demand for rhino horn in Vietnam has been linked to the escalating poaching crisis in Africa. Save the Rhino International would like to express our sincere thanks to Berlin Zoo and Tierpark Berlin-Friedrichsfelde GmbH for kindly supporting the rangers to protect rhinos on the ground in Kenya and also to help us tackle the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam.”
Zoos act as Noah’s genetic Ark
In addition, both of Berlin’s zoos actively participate in “ex situ conservation”. Zoo Berlin has bred Eastern black rhinos since 1981, and Tierpark Berlin has bred Indian rhinos since 1985. Both are important partners in the European Endangered Species Programmes (EEPs) for each species. On a broader scale, Berlin has also been responsible for managing the international studbook for the black rhinoceros since 1966 on behalf of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums – the umbrella organisation for zoos and aquariums around the world.
“Zoos take on the role of a ‘Noah’s genetic Ark’, providing a home and resources vital to animals’ survival when their natural habitat is no longer secure,” says Zoo and Tierpark Director Dr Andreas Knieriem. “Also animals in zoos have an important role as ambassadors, drawing attention to the endangered status of their fellows in the wild.”
Rays of hope
One recent example of the success of breeding programmes was provided by the Tierpark’s Indian rhinos last year. Young Thanos is not only a favourite with visitors, his optimistic name – Greek for “immortal” – signifies hope for the next generation of Indian rhinos born in European zoos.
Zoo Berlin is one of the most successful keepers and breeders of Eastern black rhinos in Europe. The link between in situ and ex situ conservation efforts becomes clear when animals born in captivity are returned to the wild. In 2012 for example, female black rhino Zawadi, born in Zoo Berlin in 2006, was transferred along with other black rhinos bred in European zoos to a National Park in Tanzania in the hope that they would start a new population. The initiative has been a success: in June 2016, Zawadi gave birth to her first calf.