There is currently an exponential increase in poaching of white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum simum) and black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) throughout their range on the continent of Africa. The country of South Africa contains 74 per cent of the world’s remaining rhino population, which is currently estimated at 18,900 white rhino and 2,040 black rhino. The white rhino was previously classified as Near Threatened (2011) and black rhino Critically Endangered (2012) by the IUCN. However, in the last six years 2,650 rhino have been poached in South Africa, with 1,116 deaths in 2014 alone; an average of three individuals per day. It is estimated that at the current rates of poaching, rhinos in South Africa may be extinct within the next 10-20 years. Poaching is predominately driven by illegal trade of rhino horn in Southeast Asia, where the black market value of rhino horn is reported to be worth more than gold.
While the value of rhino horn has been well documented, little is understood about rhinos’ environmental value and how these animals impact the ecosystems in which they function. Rhinos are believed to play an important role as 'ecosystem engineers', influencing the landscape in ways that promote a unique assemblage of species of plants and other animals that may not exist without their continued presence in these systems. Yet, we have little understanding of their specific impact on the environment.
This will be the first study in South Africa to look at the ecosystem services of rhinos and the impact of management on rhino behaviour – information that will help to further protect these animals. The results will highlight how rhinos support biodiversity within their ecosystem and will be shared with rhino owners and park managers to create effective large-scale policies that help reduce the risk of poaching. The study is sponsored by the Earthwatch Institute and the Lounsbury Foundation.