Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Zoo Rant Week Follow-up: Let's talk about poaching

Find my Zoo Rant Week series here (this post links to the previous four).

There are currently five species of rhinos left in the world: northern white rhinos, southern white rhinos, black rhinos, Sumatran and Javan. One of those species, the northern white, has only four surviving members left on the entire planet.

The remaining four are under 24-hour armed guard in Africa, but are either not interested in breeding or are too old or too young. We are watching the extinction of a species, and they're far from alone in their predicament.

Last year, over a thousand rhinos were poached for their horns in South Africa alone. In some cultures, rhino horn is seen as a medicine, or a health supplement, or a rare ceremonial decoration. But a rhino's horn is made of keratin, the same protein that makes up our fingernails and hair. It grows back, just like our nails and hair do. There's nothing magical or medicinal about rhino horn. It would be the same as trying to cure a cold by eating your hair.

But rhino horn is a lucrative business for shady people. And the message that it's a medicine is so ingrained in the cultures that believe it that it would be like telling Americans that Vitamin C doesn't help prevent colds. (Spoiler: it doesn't. But I bet you know someone who thinks so). We can get into the placebo effect later; the important thing is that rhino horn contains nothing special.

In the regions where rhinos are found, there is a war going on every single day between poachers and those who wish to protect the rhinos. Every time the anti-poaching strategists come up with something new, like poisoning the horns (harmless to the rhinos, and marked with a bright pink dye) or removing the horns regularly (since they grow back), the poachers either find a way around it or kill the rhinos anyway out of spite.

And the situation doesn't stop with rhinos. Also popular animals to poach: tigers, cheetahs, leopards (most big cats, really). Gorillas. Sea Turtles. Elephants. Well, here. See a bigger list for yourself.

All of these animals are in danger due to poaching. The three at biggest threat currently are rhinos, elephants, and tigers. As mentioned during my zoo rant week, there are more tigers in backyards in the US than there are left in the wild. Without zoos making serious efforts to breed them responsibly (i.e., with an eye for ample genetic diversity and health), we could also expect tigers to go extinct during our lifetime. This may happen even despite our efforts.

Long story short: if you're looking for someone to hate when it comes to wild animals, hate poachers. Be verbal about the fact that these things aren't medicine, or pretty-- they're far prettier on the animals they come from. Pass legislation against poaching (yes, it even happens here in America). And above all, when you travel, don't buy animal parts as trinkets. No matter how small, or where the person selling them says they came from. Ever.

But don't hate zoos. We're really not the bad guys. We're doing the best we can in an uphill battle against climate change, poaching, and public opinion.

As usual, thanks for reading.

PS-- The New York Times just today published an excellent article about the widespread effects climate change can and will and is already having on the planet, the plants, and the animals. There's a lot in here that directly affects you and I. I suggest taking a look!