On the Front Line of Rhino Conservation

The threats facing the world’s remaining rhinos are as real as ever. For the people working to protect them, that means danger is never too far away.

A southern white: the least-threatened species of rhino, with around 20,000 individuals spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa…still precious few

Last week (20 February ’17), a group of armed men breached security at the Fundimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province. They proceeded to violently attack the orphanage’s staff, sexually assault one female worker, and attack orphaned baby rhinos. It was reported that one calf had to be euthanized the following morning as a result of its injuries, and another was killed by the assailants (two of whom have apparently been arrested by the local authorities). One of the orphaned rhinos, Impi, had sat by the corpse of his mother – also killed by poachers for her horn – for six days before he was found by his rescuers and taken to Thula Thula. Both Impi and the other calf, Gugu, had their horns hacked off with machetes during the attack.

I doubt many of my readers will have been aware of these events. The attack received some coverage in the UK press, such as a 200-odd word article on page 42 of the Saturday Times, but not muchInitially publicised by Africa Geographic and Save the Rhino, the story reflects the disturbing reality that conservationists face as they work to protect some of the world’s most threatened species.


As you may know, rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold, and poaching continues unrelentingly across Africa and South Asia, fuelled by demand for horn in the Far East and Middle East. 700 rhinos were killed last year (2016) in southern Africa alone, and global rhino populations are critical.

There are five distinct extant species of rhino (populations in brackets):

  • Javan rhino (55-60)
  • Sumatran rhino (<100)
  • Greater one-horned rhino (>3500)
  • Black Rhino (5000-5400)
  • White rhino (20,000-22,000)

Although the Javan rhino’s situation is the most precarious, with just 60 or so left on Earth (90% of which can be found in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park), this article briefly looks at the fates of the two sub-species of white rhino – the southern white and the northern white. Their respective situations demonstrate what happens when conservation efforts work well, and what happens when, for whatever reason, they fail.

The southern white is one of the conservation world’s greatest success stories, as this IUCN SSC AfRSG chart shows:

iucn-graphFrom just 20 individuals at the end of the 19th century, there are now over 20,000 southern whites across Southern and Eastern Africa. They are by far the most populous sub-species. I was lucky enough to see a handful of southern whites in South Africa in 2016. Like Africa’s elephants, they are beautifully majestic for such large beasts. This recovery has only been achieved through a massive conservation effort, millions upon millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man hours. It has surely been worth it.

The northern white, by contrast, is all but extinct. You and I will most likely never have the chance to see one, other than in photographs. Poaching throughout the late-20th century drastically reduced their numbers, until, by the early 2000s, there were only a handful left in the wild, roaming Garamba National Park in the northeast corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But, caught in the throes of the DRC’s bloody civil war, the sub-species was driven to extinction in the wild, as all efforts to relocate survivors proved fruitless. Only 3 northern white rhinos remain. Previously held in captivity at Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, they are now under 24/7 armed guard in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy (also home to just over 100 black rhinos). The hope was that these northern whites would be able to save their sub-species. But they are unable to reproduce naturally.

This photograph has been widely circulated in the last couple of years. It shows Sudan, the last male northern white, and his guardians in Ol Pejeta. Sudan seems somehow to know that he is the last of his kind. Source: Huffington Post

It was reported in mid-2016 that international efforts were underway to save the sub-species artificially, by removing eggs from the two remaining females and creating embryos that could be carried by surrogate rhinos. It remains to be seen whether such a project can be successful, but it has attracted as much scepticism as support, not least because some think it will lead to a complacency if we just rely on this kind of artificial conservation. For now at least, the die is cast for the northern white.


The contrasting fates of the northern and southern whites show that we must stay the course, even in the face of great adversity. The attack on the Thula Thula orphanage is an extreme reminder of this.  Sometimes extreme reminders – like the extinction of a sub-species or a violent assault on conservationists – can spur people into action. So…

What can you do?

To start, if you want to know more about any of the 5 extant rhino species, check out the WWF website: http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/rhino. It’s nice and easy to navigate the WWF site; have a look at the IUCN site if you’re after some more in-depth information.

If you’d like to find out more about some of the incredible work being done in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, why not head to “Wild World of Rhinos: ‘Their Moment of Truth’” at London’s Royal Institution Venue (Mayfair), which is coming up in mid-March? Proceeds from ticket sales will go towards the conservation work in Ol Pejeta, and there’ll be an auction as well. You can buy tickets here:


If you can’t make it, look out for a piece on this site in late March, as I’ll make sure to do a write up of the event.

You can, of course, do your own fundraising for Ol Pejeta, or other rhino-focused charities, like Save the Rhino. Money raised goes towards training anti-poaching patrols, helping maintain vehicles and facilities, supporting awareness campaigns, and so on.

You could also adopt a rhino, either with a one-off payment of your choosing or a monthly adoption plan. Alternatively, you can donate directly to the Thula Thula orphanage in KwaZulu-Natal, as the staff there come to terms with last week’s attack, and resolve to redouble their efforts to protect Africa’s rhinos.

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