Andreas Späth

It’s not just about the rhinos

2012-11-19 15:33

Andreas Späth

The 21st Century is not a good time to be a rhino. After having been around for millions of years, the species might not survive humanity.

As of last Monday, the annual rhino poaching toll in South Africa, home to about 80% of the planet’s rhinos, stood at a sobering 549. That’s a grim new record, way up from 2011’s figure of 448, and it comes in a year when more than 200 people have already been arrested in connection with rhino poaching and one has been sentenced to a 40-year jail term.

The situation elsewhere is no better. In other African countries with much smaller rhino populations, ongoing poaching, even at far lower rates than ours, has a devastating impact. The Javan rhino, formerly distributed throughout much of South East Asia, has been decimated to a mere 35 confirmed individuals in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park.

Much of the demand for rhino horn in recent years has come from Vietnam, the only country in the world where rhino horn grinding bowls are mass produced and where offering your dinner guests a supposedly detoxifying drink laced with rhino horn powder is the thing to do in affluent society.

The idea that rhino horn acts as an aphrodisiac appears to actually have been created largely by western media hype which, ironically, was embraced by the Vietnamese populous, as was the more recent myth that the substance has cancer-curing powers. With a more-expensive-than-gold street value of around $65 000 per kilogram, it’s easy to understand the pressure on the supply of rhino horn from South Africa’s national parks and game reserves.

But rhinos aren’t the only wildlife that’s under increasing threat from humans through poaching, deforestation, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change. North of the Limpopo, Africa’s elephant population is being decimated by well-armed syndicates who are not above butchering entire herds in one go.

There have been reports of a rise in the export of lion bones to practitioners of Asian traditional medicine. In India, it’s estimated that four leopards are poached for their body parts every week. Scientists believe that 95% of South East Asia’s and 75% of the Caribbean’s coral reefs are in danger of collapse and 25 of the world’s primate species are on the brink of extinction, as are one in eight bird, one in four mammal and one in three amphibian species.

Human activities are the main reason that extinctions now occur 1000 to 10 000 times more frequently than the expected natural rate.

So what would it take to reverse this depressing trend? About $81 billion a year, worldwide, according to a study published in Science in October. That’s the total needed to reduce the risk of extinction for threatened species and to establish and maintain the necessary protected areas.

Sounds like an impossibly large amount, doesn’t it? But, as the authors have pointed out, it’s less than half the money splurged on bankers’ bonuses in 2011 and not even 20% of what humans spend on soft drinks annually - just $11.42 per year for every man, woman and child.

And we’re not talking about a bleeding-heart handout to nature or a bunny-hugger tax here. Spending this money would be an economically sound investment in our own future.

You see, our activities on Earth are busy causing a very substantial loss in so-called ecosystem services every year. Those are the myriad of natural processes, from bees pollinating our crops to photosynthesising plants absorbing the CO2 we keep pumping into the atmosphere, without which we simply couldn’t survive.

And the monetary value of this loss in nature’s services to humans? A gob-smacking $2 to 6.6 trillion annually! So spending billions a year to halt the earth’s sixth great extinction, which we’re currently orchestrating, will save us trillions in the long run, and we’ll get a more liveable planet thrown in on the side. Sounds like a good deal to me...

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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