This autumn I will be teaching a new module in Conservation Biology. There’s a lecture I’m already writing in my head, though I dread the day that it finally happens because it comes with a personal dimension. I must be among a small number of living witnesses to two species which are now on the verge of extinction.
This week we learnt that Tam, the last male Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, has died. I met Tam while working in Borneo many years ago. My home was close to an institute that was attempting to breed rhinos and I would regularly walk past the enclosure hosting these recalcitrant giants on my way into the forest.
The story of the rhinos of Sabah is tied up with political disagreements, human tragedy* and some extremely bad luck. For many years it was asserted that there were 30 left in the wild, despite a persistent absence of evidence. Now we have to admit that they are on their way out. And no, I don’t have much hope for expensive lab-based interventions. If the habitat they lived in has gone, along with the accumulated knowledge and experience that allowed herds to move and forage through the landscape, then the species can only return as a curio. Limited conservation funding is better directed elsewhere.
By coincidence I also met one of the last of the northern white rhinos while teaching on a field course in Kenya 15 years ago. Not the very last, though this hardly matters, because their trajectory was already dismal. It lumbered peaceably around a bush and came directly towards me, staring directly down the barrel of my camera lens. Sadly I have no evidence of this because the film was subsequently ruined**, but I don’t need the photograph. The moment is seared in my memory for life.
In both cases I encountered the rhinos in sad circumstances. Tam was so domesticated by human contact that he was more interested in having a belly rub than in demonstrating his physical strength. He certainly wasn’t much interested in sex with other rhinos, which was the preoccupation of his keepers. The northern white rhino I met was accompanied at all times by a pair of armed guards. In neither case could I claim to have seen the species in its full glory. They were docile, amiable memories of rhinos.
These are the only rhinos I have seen outside zoos, although their absence is tangible in the increasing abundance of Euphorbia candelabrum in African savannahs, a generally unpalatable species but one which rhinos formerly consumed. Losing such a major herbivore inevitably has impacts on plant communities as well. If you know where to look then there is a rhino-shaped hole.
Yet my world is full of rhinos at the moment. My son plays with a plush cuddly rhino, has a soft blanket with a rhino print, wears a t-shirt covered with cartoon rhinos. The same could be said of dinosaurs, and what rhinos share in common is that they are large, charismatic megafauna which he will probably never see in the wild.
Yes, I know that there are positive stories to tell in rhino conservation. Global rhino numbers across all five species are close to 30,000, mainly due to successful protection of the southern white rhino in South Africa, but still the two Asian species hover on the brink, and a new poaching epidemic threatens recent gains.
And so, later this year, I will stand in front of a classroom of students and bear witness to the losses of my generation. We knew this was happening, we watched it happen, we tried to raise the alarm but our voices were not enough. The pressure is now building through movements like Extinction Rebellion and the realisation that this is an emergency. I hope that the tide is turning. Much remains to be saved. But even if we succeed this time, one day we will be forced to look back and see how much we have lost, plants and animals alike. I hope that I never have to describe a rhino.
* My memories of the Sumatran rhino will also be tinged with sadness in recollection of the brilliant Dr Annelisa Kilbourn, a wildlife vet who died tragically in a plane crash in Gabon in 2002. Best known for her brave work demonstrating the link between gorillas and ebola, the rhino project was another large gap she left behind.
** At this point I might need to explain to the students that cameras used to contain film, before the arrival of digital mechanisms of capturing and storing images. This will only make me sound like even more of a dinosaur.