What the death of a white rhino really tells us

Sudan, the last male northern white rhino in the world, ...

Posted: Mar 21, 2018 10:43 AM
Updated: Mar 21, 2018 10:43 AM

Sudan, the last male northern white rhino in the world, died at the age of 45 in Kenya on Tuesday. Just two northern white rhinos remain -- Sudan's daughter and granddaughter. This majestic species has been all but wiped out by poaching, and may soon face the fate of the northern black rhino: extinction.

Sudan lived at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, a private reserve I've visited several times, where rangers work tirelessly to protect elephants, rhinos and other wildlife (but especially rhinos) from indefatigable poachers.

He was spared death at the hands of such hunters. But his protected circumstances are an important reminder.

Indeed, it's easy for outsiders to look at a photo of Sudan and read about his armed security detail and wonder why he needed it. Why would anyone risk death themselves in an attempt to kill such a spectacular endangered creature in the first place? And why would the decimation of an entire species do nothing to deter hunters who stalk them into oblivion?

For some poachers, the answer may be simple greed, but for most, it's survival: the fate of one species of rhino doesn't matter much if your family is going hungry and your future looks grim.

After all, demand for rhino horns -- especially in China and Vietnam, where they have long been used in traditional medicine -- persists, and creates considerable financial incentives for poaching that are hard for impoverished local men to refuse.

National governments and private conservancies like Ol Pejeta, of course, have to protect vulnerable wildlife within their borders. But the problem extends well beyond them. The response to poaching has to be holistic and global -- addressing, among other things, economic need and lack of opportunity.

In Kenya, it entails, for example, reining in and refocusing the Kenya Wildlife Service, the organization that manages national parks (Ol Pejeta is not managed by KWS) and that has been accused by Human Rights Watch and local community members of extrajudicial killings and disappearing people, often from minority groups, under the cover of fighting terrorism and poaching. The Kenya Wildlife Service has denied the accusations.

The Kenyan government's rank corruption also compromises its ability to productively fight the scourge of poaching, and contributes to national instability and widespread poverty -- which in turn drives more poaching.

But this is far from just a Kenyan problem. China has been a major player in the demise of trophy species, given that the nation has long been the main driver in the demand for ivory. China finally banned ivory at the end of last year, after decades of pleading from conservationists, but there is much more the country could do to protect species, especially as its footprint across Africa grows.

Chinese infrastructure projects on the continent bring some jobs to men in poaching hotspots like Kenya (and benefit the Chinese economy and long-term interests, especially in extraction), but Chinese aid projects are opaque and often self-interested; China lags in providing direct health aid or poverty alleviation.

As for the United States, President Donald Trump's "America First" strategy is turning American eyes inward, neglecting not just African people in immediate need, but emerging economies across the continent (unfortunately, when it comes to development and aid to Africa, President Barack Obama also fell down on the job).

The United Sates is missing crucial opportunities to engender goodwill and maintain American influence in often-ignored African countries that have the potential to become powerhouses of innovation and opportunity. And in doing so, it allows poaching to thrive among populations who pursue it, often for lack of better options.

The Trump sons' cruel hobby of hunting big African game also doesn't help. Photos circulating of Eric and Donald Trump Jr. -- separately and together -- holding up their African game kills don't depict poaching, of course, and there is significant debate within conservation communities about whether controlled big game hunting helps or hurts. But the glorification of big game hunting contributes to a view of wild animals as little more than desirable trophies -- objects of conspicuous consumption for the wealthy, not sentient beings.

There is ample reason to believe such thinking informs policy here at home: The new advisory board shaping US law on importation of animal body parts from Africa is stacked with people whose idea of fun is to travel to largely impoverished nations in order to spend thousands of dollars slaughtering majestic creatures.

The scientists, researchers and conservationists who don't believe that allowing wealthy foreigners to hunt endangered species is the key to saving those species are unlikely to get a fair hearing with this group. And so, like with so many other Trump administration efforts, a self-interested and under-qualified minority will dictate policies impacting the rest of the world.

The death of gentle giant Sudan is a loss for the world. But we don't have to let it be in vain -- and we can start by protecting other animals, and looking out for the many humans who also suffer.

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