Andreas Späth

Who cares about rhinos anyway?

2011-03-09 07:30

Last year’s furore over organised rhino poaching elicited widely contrasting responses from South Africans. Bunny-huggers turned into rhino-huggers by their hundreds and declared the crimes bad enough to warrant the re-institution of the death penalty.

Others considered the outrage over the illegal hunting of a couple of glorified zoo animals as overly emotional and insignificant in a country plagued with many bigger problems from chronic poverty to large-scale unemployment.

It might sound disingenuous, but as far as I’m concerned both of these opinions contain a kernel of truth (although, rhino-huggers, you’ll never get my vote on the death penalty...).

The survival of a single endangered species like the rhino is insignificant in the sense that it merely represents the tip of an iceberg of animals and plants that are threatened by extinction, not because of the nefarious operations of a few crime syndicates, but because of our own activities. Yours and mine.

We should care about butchered rhinos in the hope that such high-profile incidents will put the spotlight on the much, much larger, global crisis of biodiversity.

So today’s take-away phrase is mass extinction. The one we humans are currently in the process of precipitating.

Brand new species usually evolve at more or less the same rate as others die out, keeping overall biodiversity at a relatively constant level. When die-offs outpace new arrivals too rapidly, however, mass extinctions literally change the face of the earth by almost wiping the biological slate clean.

Periods of major mass extinction in which 75% or more of the earth’s plant and animal species disappear forever are natural phenomena that have occurred five times in the geological past, the most well-know example being the cataclysmic event that killed off the dinosaurs and many other species about 65 million years ago.

Exactly what causes such extinctions has been hotly debated by scientists for decades. Clearly it’s complicated, but the main culprits are asteroid or comet impacts and volcanic eruptions on a scale big enough to make Eyjafjallajökull (the Icelandic volcano that grounded Europe’s commercial airline fleet last year) look like the geological equivalent of a pimple. The fossil record also suggests that extinctions tend to be more common during relatively warm, “greenhouse” phases of the earth’s history compared to the cooler “icehouse” periods.

Today, some researchers are predicting that we’re on course for a sixth mass extinction. About a fifth of all vertebrate species are currently considered “threatened”. Increasing numbers of freshwater fish, shark and ray species, reef-building corals, turtles, birds, amphibians, insects and plants are heading for the evolutionary exit. Get ready to wave good-bye to the Sumatran rhinoceros and orang-utan, the Philippine crocodile, the mountain gorilla, the red wolf, the western gray whale and many more critically endangered animals.

This time round the causes are much less ambiguous than they are for previous mass extinctions. No asteroid or comet. No infernal volcanic outpourings. Just us humans causing climate change, habitat loss, deforestation, pollution, over-fishing and spreading invasive species and disease.

A new study published in the scientific journal Nature last week confirms that extinction is happening between 3 and 12 times faster today than would be expected if there was no crisis and that we can expect a new mass extinction with unpredictable consequences within as little as 300 years unless we act now.

And that’s why we shouldn’t just dismiss rhino poaching as a liberal non-issue and also why we shouldn’t fetishise media-friendly species like the rhino at the expense of the rest of the endangered biosphere.

Forget the schmaltzy appeals to help ensure that your grandchildren live to see rhinos in the wild or even the argument that humans have a moral obligation to preserve the other life forms with whom we share our planet – although personally, I’m rather partial to both of those arguments.

Help to save the rhino and all the other species for the entirely unemotional and selfish reason that we simply can’t afford to lose them. Our economies, our livelihoods and our own long-term survival as a species literally depend on them for food and medicine, to pollinate our crops, purify our water, oxygenate our air and fertilise our soil.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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