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Listing white rhinos as endangered could save all rhinos, conservationists say

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has named southern white rhinoceros an endangered species protected under the Endangered Species Act, a move that the organization says could help protect the other four highly endangered species of rhinos.

By Contributor / September 13, 2013

Poaching of the southern White rhino, as well as the other four species of rhinos, has been on the rise since 2008, spurred by demand for status symbol rhino products from Asia.

Taronga Zoo/Reuters

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The US Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the southern white rhinoceros as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

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The measure will put under the act’s protection the last remaining unprotected species of rhinoceros, a move that the organization says could help protect the other four highly endangered species of rhinos – black, Sumatran, Indian, and Javan – from poaching.

The southern white rhino is not as close to extinction as its four cousins, with about 20,000 white rhinos in protected areas and private game reserves in four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya. (The southern white rhino is actually a subspecies of white rhino; its northern counterpart is believed extinct in the wild.)

In contrast, the Javan rhino, the most threatened of the five rhino species, is now believed to number just 35 individuals, all living in Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, Indonesia. Vietnam’s last Javan rhino was declared extinct in 2010.

But the white rhino’s omission from the act had meant that traffickers, if caught during transactions, could pass off any rhino horn as a white rhino's, says Craig Hoover, head of the wildlife trade and conservation branch of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Mr. Hoover notes that the white rhino’s horns are physically indistinguishable from those cut from the other rhinos.

“This is really to address what was a loophole in how we can regulate the movement of rhino horns in the US,” he says.

According to a statement from the office, the new classification "prohibits the sale or offer for sale in interstate commerce of this species and its parts and products, consistent with all other rhinos." 

The announcement comes after South Africa, home to about 80 percent of the world’s rhinos, reported a severe spate of white rhino killings within its borders over the last year and a half. Last year, that country alone recorded 668 white rhinos poached, as well as 446 white rhinos slaughtered in the first six months of this year, the US embassy said in a statement. That compares to 448 dead in 2011 and 333 dead in 2009.

Before 2008, the highest poaching toll since about 1990 was largely just in the single digits, says Hoover.

The dramatic uptick in killings stems from a catastrophic collision of two factors: booming wealth in Asia, especially in recently prosperous Vietnam, and the branding of crushed rhino horn folk remedies, says Hoover.

“Historically, the horn has been used as a fever reducer in Asia,” says Hoover. “But that’s not new. What is new is that rhino horn has suddenly became the cool thing, particularly in Vietnam, for things like a hangover cure or a cancer cure – none of which is grounded in any research or scientific fact.”

At this point, a kilogram of rhino horn commands about $60,000 to $65,000, making rhino horn worth more by weight than gold, according to US Fish and Wildlife Service. Rhino horn is made of keratin, the protein in human fingernails, and, if not for the puffed-up demand, would not be valuable.

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