The last northern rhino

Nola, a 41-year old northern white rhino, died yesterday in a zoo in San Diego. Why should we care, in this time of terror and violence, and just a week away from COP21 in Paris – the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Surely global security and climate change, which are not mutually exclusive, are way more significant?

Well, Nola’s death means there are only three northern white rhinos alive in the world. As Jane Kennedy, Nola’s lead keeper said in a YouTube video in January this year, “What she represents is extinction”.

And here we are, in what has been called the sixth mass extinction event. Paul Ehrlich, professor at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, says there is no longer any doubt about this. A recent study he co-authored shows that even with conservative estimates, species are disappearing at 100 times the normal rate of extinction – and a rate we have not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Clearing natural ecosystems for agriculture, settlements and logging is one of the biggest drivers of this loss of our biological treasures. Other culprits are invasive species, chemicals that contaminate natural systems, and, of course, climate change and ocean acidification from carbon emissions. According to IUCN, 41% of amphibians are at risk of extinction.

But, back to Nola the rhino. The news of her death reminded me of something I wrote in April 2013, about the shooting of what was probably the last rhino in Mozambique. So here it is, still in the present tense, in honour of Nola and the people who looked after her for so long. It’s a sad story, but the video below it of Fatou, another northern white rhino, has some charming and heart-warming footage.

“The picture on the back of the 20 metiçais note is of a rhino. It looks like a white rhino … or then again, maybe a black one, the note I am holding has been worn away along the animal’s jaw, so I can’t see clearly if it is square (white rhino), or pointed (black rhino). Perhaps this is open to some interpretation, but not enough surely to merit the five minutes I spent staring at this currency note yesterday. I was setting it aside, while tidying up my desk, in a much-needed bout of dealing with admin, for a colleague who is collecting notes from each of the countries we visit on a journey around southern Africa.

And then it hit me: according to recent reports, the last remaining rhino was shot dead last week in Mozambique, while we were in the country on a regional initiative to map climate change expertise in universities.

Something like over 273 rhinos have been killed in South Africa’s Kruger National Park this year already, and I am not sure how many in Mozambique. This is horrific. We are told that a lot of the poachers are entering from the Mozambican side – there are no fences as this is part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area.

There have been reports in the South African newspapers that poachers are being treated as heroes in the Mozambican villages along the border, something like Somali pirates in Puntland. There are few economic opportunities and a lot of hopelessness in these desolate places. So we are told, and I can believe it. We have also been told that 40 poachers have been arrested by South African authorities this year, and that game guards have been implicated in the killing.

So, there I was, sitting dumbfounded, suddenly struck by the devastating irony of it: Mozambique has put the rhino on its currency, indicating, one would think, some sense of high value. But now, for the second time in recent history, the country has lost the last of its number of this great prehistoric-looking beast.

Will they keep the rhino on the 20 metiçais note, as a reminder of this great loss? Mauritius has a three-dimensional watermark of the dodo, long extinct through human activity, on its currency. What a pity if we let the rhino go the same route – a ghostly spectre on a banknote is no substitute for the living, snorting splendour of this animal in the flesh.”



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