Genetic 'rhino capital' threatened

(Picture: Supplied)
(Picture: Supplied)
Cape Town - Since the beginning of 2013 a rhino has been lost to poaching every 11 hours, and this rapid decline in population numbers is having far-reaching implications for rhino genetics, according to rhino expert Dr Mike Knight.

Knight, chairperson of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s (SSC) African rhino specialist group, said that at current poaching rates, the death rate is expected to exceed the birth rate in two years.

"We would then be eating into rhino capital. From a genetic perspective, the smaller the population, [the greater] the loss of genetic heterozygosity and hence population resilience,” he told News24.

In evolutionary biology ‘heterozygosity’ is a common measure of the genetic variation in a population.

Genetic variation is important because it safeguards species against natural events which often lead to decreases in numbers.

Poor 'genetic base'

One of the biggest conservation success stories of the century; that of the southern white rhino, has been a constant battle against the effects of low genetic variation.

According to Knight, the current rhino population of just over 20 400 grew from a population of 50-150 animals in the late 1800s.

“The viability of this population depends upon the genetic base one is building on, which is poor for white rhino,” he said.

Updated facts provided by a recent IUCN press release suggest a bleak future for African rhino.

Rhino poaching has increased by 43% between 2011 and 2012.

This means that 3% of all rhino were lost in 2012 alone.

In 2012, 89.66% of all poached African rhino were killed in South Africa.

In the statement Knight said that “well-organised and well-funded crime syndicates are continuing to feed the growing black market with rhino horn”.

"Over the past few years, consumer use of rhino horn has shifted from traditional Asian medicine practices to new uses, such as to convey status,” he added.

Knight and the SSC are currently preparing for the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), taking place from 3 to 14 March in Bangkok, Thailand.

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