Africa: Poaching Crisis Prompts Action to Protect Southern White Rhino

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Photo: Kevin Walsh
Elephants in the evening, Hwange, Zimbabwe.

Washington — In response to an ongoing poaching crisis that is dramatically reducing wild rhinoceros populations worldwide, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is taking immediate action to protect the southern white rhinoceros under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The ESA provides a critical safety net for fish, wildlife and plants and has prevented the extinction of hundreds of imperiled species, as well as promoting the recovery of many others.

By extending ESA protection to the white rhino -- the last remaining unprotected species of rhinoceros -- USFWS is closing a loophole that has been exploited by unscrupulous poachers and traffickers seeking to cash in on global demand for rhino horn.

The action, announced September 9 by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell at the White House Forum to Combat Wildlife Trafficking, will protect the southern white rhinoceros as a threatened species under the ESA's "similarity of appearance" provisions and will aid international law enforcement efforts to fight poaching and crack down on trafficking in rhino horn. USFWS will accept public comments for 30 days on this interim final rule, although ESA protections will begin immediately, the agency said.

"As both a transit point and consumer destination for illegal rhino horn products, the United States plays a vital role in curbing poaching and wildlife trafficking. Along with extending protection to the southern white rhino, we're evaluating additional regulatory and policy options in an effort to strengthen our ability to investigate and prosecute poachers and traffickers," said USFWS Director Dan Ashe in a posting on the agency website. "We have a long history in working to curb the illegal wildlife trade, and are committed to working with international law enforcement agencies to address current and emerging challenges."

Rhino poaching has reached unprecedented levels, the agency said, with South Africa alone recording 668 rhinos poached in 2012 and 446 rhinos killed in the first six months of 2013. This "unprecedented killing spree" is fueled by an increasing demand for rhino horn, which is ground up and consumed in folk remedies in the unfounded belief that it can cure disease, the agency added. In fact, the primary component of rhino horn is keratin -- the same substance found in fingernails -- and scientific testing has repeatedly demonstrated that it has no medicinal value. Rhino horn is also used to produce ceremonial libation cups and other carvings.

Four of the five rhino species surviving in the wild today -- the black, Sumatran, Indian, and Javan rhinoceros -- are fully protected as endangered under the ESA. The white rhino is the fifth, encompassing two subspecies, southern and northern white rhinos. By 1970, the southern whites survived only in South Africa and since then have been reintroduced into the historic range states of Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. The northern white rhino, last seen in the wild in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, is also protected as endangered and may now be extinct in the wild. Its far more numerous cousin, the southern white rhino, has not required protection until now, USFWS said.

Without destructive genetic testing, differentiating between horns and horn products made from the southern white rhino and the endangered Javan, Sumatran, Indian, black, and northern white rhino is difficult, if not impossible, according to USFWS. This difficulty has allowed traffickers to mislabel the horns of other protected rhino species as white rhino horn in an effort to evade restrictions on sale and transport.

While the southern white rhino has been subject to import and export restrictions under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), this new action prohibits the sale or offer for sale in interstate commerce of this species and its parts and products, consistent with all other rhinos. The threatened designation will not change current permitting requirements for sport-hunted trophies of southern white rhinos.

USFWS is actively engaged with a variety of partners and the public in the search for improved and innovative ways to conserve and recover imperiled species

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