Should Rhinos Be Introduced in Australia?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

rhino conservation

Story at-a-glance -

  • Zoologists have joined forces with wildlife conservation societies to introduce rhinos to Australia in hopes that an “insurance population” remains if those in Africa die out, but containment to protect natural fauna is a major concern
  • Both Indian and Javan rhinoceros have a single horn, while the African and Sumatran rhinoceros species have two horns, composed of keratin, similar to the protein makeup of human fingernails and hair, bird beaks and animal hooves
  • The quest for rhino horns has brought the Javan rhino to near extinction; in fact, experts believe there are only 60 of that subspecies left in the world
  • Australia may be willing to accept rhinos to help save them, but history shows that introducing species, notably rabbits and cats, into the wild has had serious and costly impact on the entire country
  • In exploring whether rhinos should be introduced to Australia, even to save them, potential danger to people and the ecosystems have been considered; however, managed containment is assured, as is public awareness

With their frontal horns, boxy heads and powerful bodies, the fascinating rhinoceros cuts one of the most iconic silhouettes on the planet. Although they can reach as much as 6,000 pounds, and can run as fast as 40 miles per hour, they have poor eyesight, which makes capturing and killing them less problematic for poachers, a problem that’s spiked in recent years.

Groups are referred to as a “crash,” and they have a fondness for mudholes, which helps lower their body temperature, as well as protect them from the sun and prevent parasites. Rhinos are known as relicts, or animals that have survived for eons in bodies some describe as prehistoric, and although there are five species of rhino, one thing they all have in common is their rapidly disappearing habitats.

Modern life is increasingly encroaching into the rain forests, grasslands, swamp bogs and savannas where they live. Those previously untouched areas are steadily being demolished and cleared to erect the fences, roads and other trappings that signify progress, but at the expense of their ability to thrive in their native surroundings.

Rhinos are herbivores, which means they eat plants exclusively, and they don’t really discriminate on the type, favoring leaves, twigs and sometimes saplings. That’s an important detail in what has become a controversy in the world of conservation. While most people might guess that rhinos hail exclusively from the African continent, there are actually five species, two in Africa and three in Asia, each with varying degrees of endangerment:

Javan — From Indonesia (aka Java) as well as Vietnam, this variety has only one horn and lives in areas where there’s tall grass, such as rain forest regions.

Sumatran — Sumatra (a large island in western Indonesia) is cold, which explains why this type has the most hair, especially when young. They’re the smallest of the species, and so rare, with only 60 in existence,1 that biologists refuse to disclose their habitats for fear of tipping off poachers.

Black — Although it’s actually light gray in color, this African rhino can weigh as much as 4,000 pounds, but it’s still smaller than the white rhino, and has two horns. Once scattered throughout the eastern and southern areas of the continent, nearly half of its subspecies are now gone.

Indian — Living on the Indian continent, these rhinos have a single horn and their skin appears to be armor-plated. They live in the grassland and forest areas in the Himalayan foothills.

White — The largest land mammal next to elephants, they’re also gray, from Africa and have two horns. With two distinct subspecies, the southernmost was decimated to just 20 a century ago, but protective measures helped return them to the most numerous at around 20,000 animals.

But the northern species has vanished: The last male, surrounded by armed guards, died in a wildlife conservancy in Northern Kenya in early 2018, and the only two females left alive are in captivity.2

Rhino Protection: A Risky Business

Although long-lived rhinos have horns as long as 5 feet in length, typically they’re around 2 feet long and made of keratin, similar to that in human hair, fingernails, bird beaks and animal hooves.3 Far worse than lost habitats, an uptick in poaching is largely due to a fabricated rumor that ground rhino horn is useful as an aphrodisiac, or at least as a health tonic.

Lixin Huang, president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, was quoted in Scientific American, “It was never used for improving male sexual function or for curing cancer.” Further:

“To be clear, rhino horn has historically been used as a traditional medicinal ingredient in countries such as China and Vietnam. But experts say neither Chinese nor Vietnamese traditional medicine ever viewed rhino horn as an aphrodisiac to boost flagging libidos.”4

Ancient Chinese folk medicine practitioners may have recommended ground rhino horn mixed with other equally dodgy ingredients for everything from snake bites to food poisoning to arthritis, but as is so often the case, clinical studies have revealed that such concoctions are sketchy and not an actual cure. Raj Amin, an ecologist at the Zoological Society of London, contends you could get as much benefit from chewing your own fingernails.5

Michele Thompson, Ph.D., a professor of Southeast Asian history at Southern Connecticut State University who in 2015 wrote “Vietnamese Traditional Medicine: A Social History,” states that individuals in the business world, from farmers to diplomats, primarily in Vietnam, have deliberately perpetuated the false narrative for financial gain, but adds, “This doesn’t mean they believe that rhino horn really works as an aphrodisiac; it just means they know that there are people who will spend a lot of money for it.”6 According to The Conversation:

“All of this means that most of the nations with rhino populations are having profound difficulties maintaining them. Not that it’s easy. Rhinos are big, near-sighted, and rather predictable in their habits — easy prey for poachers. They live in developing nations with many impoverished people, where lethal weapons are frighteningly common and the rule of law is precarious.”7

Aside from any medicinal claims, there’s also a market for items like rings, knife handles, sculptures and drinking vessels made from rhino horns. Hence, the “arts and antiquities” aspects have become a key motive for poachers who are willing to shoot the animals with tranquilizer darts, hack off their horns, then leave them to bleed to death while the perpetrators head off to sell their plunder for upward of $300,000 each.

Building a Future for Rhinos

Although shipping the horns on the black market, as is done mostly in Vietnam and China, is illegal in most countries, the practice is accelerating. In light of the rapidly declining rhino populations, South African officials have even resorted to treating rhino-horn powder with poisons to deter would-be consumers, a measure that is dismaying to many.

In fact, a businesswoman in Melbourne, Australia, raised tens of thousands of dollars for newspaper and magazine ads warning citizens in Vietnam. Meanwhile, The Conversation reported in mid-July of 2018:

“In recent weeks scientists have used frozen sperm and harvested eggs to create a few test-tube embryos, which they hope to implant into a southern female in a last-ditch effort to stave off the northern subspecies’ demise … In efforts to staunch the slaughter, some nations are de-horning their rhinos, or assigning guards to watch over them day and night, like heavily armed sheep herders.”8

The Australian Rhino Project,9 comprised of the Royal Zoological Society of South Australia, Orana Wildlife Trust and Taronga Conservation Society Australia, is a collaborative entity formed to introduce rhinos to Australia in hopes that an “insurance population” of the animal remains if poaching and lost habitats render them extinct in their native regions.

While some experts are hoping that captive breeding is the best solution for saving the species, especially the Sumatran and Javan rhinos, others who may have thought that introducing rhinos to the Australian continent must have been a desperate and extreme proposal in a brain-storming session. There are sobering statistics to consider, according to the project website:

  • Rhino horn on the black market is double the price of gold
  • On average, a rhino is killed for its horn every six hours
  • There are now more rhinos killed than born
  • It’s estimated there are fewer than 20,000 rhinos remaining in Africa
  • If action isn’t taken immediately, rhinos in the wild may be extinct within 10 years

Project heads assert that transporting rhinos from the wild in South Africa to Australia is “an important element in the collective international fight to protect the rhinoceros species from extinction. The rate of decline in Africa is unprecedented and requires urgent attention.”10

The plan, they say, entails introducing more rhino from South Africa to those already established in a conservation program in Australia, where they’ll continue to be managed in “open-plain accredited locations with high-level security,” and later, if the situation eases, to return them to their native habitats.

There’s a Reason for Naysayers and Detractors

The effort sounds great, many say, but the negative possibilities have just as many shaking their heads, and not without cause. Concerned environmentalists are scrambling to figure out how to protect natural flora and fauna in areas where rhinos could be imported.

After all, Australia has been involved in a few foiled plans some may call hare-brained, such as when rabbits were shipped with the First Fleet in 1788, and hunters in the mid-1800s thought releasing 24 of them into the Victoria’s wild would be fun for hunting. The idea was for them to flourish, and flourish they did, as a single female rabbit can produce between 18 and 30 babies per year.

One of the problems the rabbits caused, unforeseen, of course, was that some flora, such as the seedlings of native shrubs, are then unable to regenerate. They threaten native animals, like the bilby and the burrowing bettong, by taking over their burrows and their food options.

The rabbits spread from Victoria into South Wales by 1880, and by 1886, into Queensland. The government built three rabbit-proof fences in 1907 to prevent their encroachment into Western areas of the continent, but it was too late; they were already there. They also tried poison and fire, which was costly and futile. According to ABC Science:

“By the 1920s, Australia's rabbit population had swelled to 10 billion. Currently, rabbits inhabit around 4 million square kilometers of Australia, stretching from southeast NSW to the WA wheatbelt. They have adapted to Australia’s diverse environments, establishing themselves in farmland, deserts, grasslands and wet coastal plains, and causing havoc to native flora and fauna.”11

Then in 1950, they tried the biological control agent, Myxoma virus, spread by mosquitoes and inducing seizures and fatal hemorrhaging in the rabbits. In some areas, 99 percent of the rabbits were killed, but in time, the virus' toxicity waned, and genetic resistance set in. In 1995, calicivirus, or rabbit hemorrhagic disease, was released and proved effective in many regions. Again, they developed a resistance.

Rabbit eradication in Australia is still a hot topic. A new strategy of ranchers and landowners monitoring their own acreage was begun, although new and more effective virus strains are being perused by authorities. A feral cat eradication effort begun in 1985 didn’t help any. Roughly half the country’s pets are cats, brought by Europeans in the 1880s to help deal with rats, mice and rabbits.

And feral cats, assessments say, kill around 377 million birds a year, while pet cats kill around 61 million birds per year — more than 330 native bird species, and about half of Australia’s native bird species. Residents are asked to keep their pet cats from roaming freely, and to keep an eye on the birds in their own backyards, but between cats and rabbits, it’s clear that introducing a new animal species can have unforeseen — and serious — consequences.

‘Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures’

Conservationists who support the idea of taking rhinos to Australia to preserve their ranks as a species make several valid points, such as ecotourists who would undoubtedly help support the effort, suggests Bill Laurance, Ph.D., research professor and Australian Laureate, who receives funding from the Australian Research Council, and is the director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at James Cook University.

He explains that rather than suggesting rhinos should roam free where they could “degrade ecosystems and even pose a danger to people,” they should be contained. Equally important is that the endeavor not undermine ongoing efforts to preserve them in the wild. He sees the rhino undertaking as a chance to safeguard rhinos against global extinction while simultaneously raising money and educating the public. He quips:

“Of course, when it comes down to it, introducing rhinos to Australia is a pretty wild idea. Maybe my tongue is in my cheek, and I’m just trying to get other tongues wagging about the desperate need for rhino conservation. But whatever we do about rhinos, it’s clear that desperate times call for desperate measures.”12