The hunt is on to save the white rhino

By Anneke Hobson

It seems like every day there is a new species that needs saving. While many need to be pulled from the brink of oblivion and nurtured back to health, some of the pleas for help are more captivating than others.

Author Douglas Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine were saving the planet long before it was cool, using any means necessary — including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in a rhino costume — in order to bolster support. Before his death in 2001, Adams supported many difference causes. The book he wrote with Carwardine, Last Chance to See, is the story of their travels around the world researching endangered animals. Adams had a particular concern for the northern white rhino. When Last Chance was published in 1990, there were twenty-two northern white rhinos left — now, there are just eight. Watching this species on the brink of extinction raises questions of modern methods of biological conservation.

Only Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Adams could make us laugh while explaining the peril of extinction for so many species and still capture the situation’s poignancy. In his only nonfiction work, Last Chance, he begins the chapter on northern white rhinos by demystifying their name. Apparently the distinguishing term “white” should be “wide,” but the Afrikaans word “weit” is in perpetual mistranslation. Thus, most people “assume that zoologists are either perverse or colour-blind, but it’s not that, it’s that they’re illiterate.” White rhinos have a slightly wider mouth than black rhinos, earning them the confusing adjective.

Careful optimism over breeding northern white rhinos with their southern, more populous counterparts is mostly punctured by the biological distinction of the species — the two sub-species are possibly too genetically different to successfully reproduce.

San Diego’s Frozen Zoo may be the only way to preserve the northern white rhino. Starting in 1972, the zoo has collected skin samples from endangered animals in a preservation effort — they now have samples from 800 different species, including the northern white rhino. Recent breakthroughs in stem cell research mark a definite possibility of returning each of these animals to their former abundance. The question is, how viable is this solution?

There’s no denying the benefits of this form of species protection — it might even become a necessary strategy for future generations. Problems arise, though, when we begin depending on this type of conservation. Money alone poses an obstacle. While it might be expensive to employ guards to protect against poachers or set up conservation parks, artificial breeding and stem cell research costs far more. Timing is another issue. Long-extinct species brought into the present (or more realistically, the future) would have a hard time adjusting to new ecosystems and could disrupt life for other species. This means that artificially restored species would primarily be kept in captivity under careful conditions, which again adds to expense and raises questions about motivation.

Why should we care about the rhino’s extreme proximity to nonexistence? Perhaps 140,000 species go extinct each year — most of them undocumented. Large mammals, though, reach extinction less often and deserve our attention for a couple of reasons. Ecosystems are typically delicate and consist of codependent species. Declining individuals of larger species mark an unbalanced habitat and can lead to more endangered species or an invasive one overcrowding the area. Since biodiversity is pretty much essential for every natural resource humans rely on (soil fertility, water, climate stability, etc.), it seems that it is in humanity’s best interest to keep ecosystems healthy and diverse. San Diego Zoo cannot preserve entire ecosystems.

There is another reason to consider the rhinos worth saving. While some species are sturdy survivors (like ants) others seem to be downright asking for extinction (cough giant panda). Adams compares these fussy species to the British motorbike industry, which, in its beginnings, simply ignored market forces. British motorbikes were noisy and unreliable, and almost disappeared when cleaner, less complicated bikes arrived in Britain from Japan. Enthusiasts, however, continued buying the British models because they had character and bikers really believed that the world would be poorer without them. At the risk of sounding maudlin, I’m proposing this as another good reason to continue protecting the remaining white rhinos in the wild. They can’t survive without our help, but as cells in the Frozen Zoo, the world would miss them aesthetically.

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