Why should we save the rhino?
“You can always build another Taj Mahal,” artist and conservationist David Shepherd once said, “But you can never build another rhino.” Faced with the last chance to save the rhino at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Bangkok this month, I’m wondering if the rhino will survive, or perhaps the question is, should it?
Rhino species sound more like varieties of coffee bean to me: the Black, the Javan, the White and the Sumatran. This gauche-looking giant beast, which has roamed the earth for more than 50 million years, plays a central role in the functioning of ecosystems, upon which the survival of thousands of other plant and animal species depend. They also drive eco tourism and safari industries for some of the poorest communities in Africa. Of course it is those phenomenal horns that are the rhino’s glory and curse.
Rhino poaching is at a record high as demand for rhino horn by practitioners of traditional Asian medicine rockets. But rhino horn is only hair: numerous fibres of the same keratin that crowns our own noddles. Yet baseless desire for this stuff, which is of no medicinal or aphrodisiac value whatsoever, is driving one of the greatest wonders of the natural world to the very brink of extinction.
Admittedly, not quite so conventionally pretty as the Taj Mahal, rhinos are undeniably a sight worth marveling and preserving. Mark Twain once remarked the world is divided between two types of people: “those who have seen the Taj Mahal and those who have not”. It could be argued this distinction applies just as well to the rhino too. I wonder how many of you have visited the renowned monument of love? And how many of you have ever seen one of these notorious stumpy herbivores in the wild? Although most of us will never get the chance to marvel at either splendour, it seems we don’t have to, to still be moved.
It has not all been a matter of sitting pretty for the man-made wonder of the world. A few years ago unease arose over the scourging impact of tourism and pollution on India’s iconic monument. Its once brilliant white marble was unromantically yellowing and flaky. When the news broke concern piped up from all corners of the globe, drawing together all those who have and have not seen the ‘elegy in marble’.
The world was united over this tarnished artifice and a feeling of universal alarm connected us all. Despite being a catastrophe far away, it spoke to everyone. Thankfully, Tourism for Agra was “willing to do whatever it takes” and together with international bodies like the World Heritage Fund the enchanting stone edifice was saved.
This blemishing blight pales into insignificance in comparison with the dire misfortunes the rhino is facing. Yet when the world was keen to do whatever was necessary to save one wonder from imperfection, it is now dithering on whether to take the chance, the final chance, to co-operate and enforce laws to ensure wildlife is used sustainably, to save another from extinction.
But really why should we save the rhino? It’s not just because the rhino is as synonymous with world wildlife as the Taj Mahal is synonymous with India. Nor is it because of its charismatic status figure. For the rhino is more than just one of the ‘big beasts’, it’s a global treasure with meaning for us all even if we’ve never seen it. What can be more inspiring than the fact that thousands of people travel from all over the world every year to glimpse in awe and wonder at an archaic-looking armour-plated monolith? Its sheer magnificence recreates not only the relics of a bygone world but also pays a heritage to all of humanity. It’s a lasting symbol of nature in an age when we have come to worship only the modern and technical.
But staring at photos of these ungainly barrel-shaped bodies, it would seem that despite everything that we have learnt about the devastating effects of man’s over-exploitation and the plummeting numbers of vulnerable species, not enough has been done by the international community to take meaningful action to tackle the threats.
For instance the illegal trade in wildlife and animal parts. We have all, individuals and governments alike, continued with our excessive pursuit of short term material satisfaction, quite unable and unwilling to curb our appetites or those of others. The unsurprising result is that the survival of species like the rhino is put under question. Who knows whether the rhino will survive this time but even if token steps are taken at the eleventh hour, it is my hunch their survival will continue to teeter on the brink and face recurrent final chances until sooner or later there will be no more. It seems perhaps the world will never appreciate the worth of the rhino, its habitats and the intricate roles it plays in the web of life, including ours, until it is gone.
However heartbreaking it may be, until we can fully take on the part we play in precipitating the extinction of the world’s most iconic species, and treat wildlife crime as seriously as illegal drug and arms trafficking, perhaps we shouldn’t attempt to draw out the existence of the rhino any longer. Not until we have pushed the planet beyond the limits of its natural resources and caused environmental havoc, do I believe we will all start to connect and take genuine steps to live and trade sustainably.
You can always build another Taj Mahal but the world stepped in and saved it from unsightly imperfection. But you can never build another rhino and only time will tell if we save it, this time or the next. I can’t help thinking perhaps we shouldn’t.Tagged in: conservation, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, endangered species, rhino, Taj Mahal, World Heritage Fund
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