The Rhinos Are Baaack!

In South Africa these hefty, unpredictable and inquisitive beasts are flourishing and have become very big business

The rhinoceros is a worldwide symbol of endangered megafauna. People and rhinos prefer similar habitat but don't mix very well, which is one reason rhinos have almost vanished from the earth. Since the 19th century people have shot them for protection, for sport, for their horns—used in Asia for folk remedies and in Yemen for dagger handles. Africa's two species—the black, or hook-lipped, rhinoceros and the white, or square-lipped, rhino—have been killed off in one impoverished, land-hungry country after another. But in South Africa, the story has a twist: rhinos are flourishing. The country has two of the three significant populations of endangered black rhinos and close to 90 percent of all the southern white rhinos remaining on the continent. And the good news—their numbers are climbing year by year.

A key reason is game privatization. Game auctions have become big business as South Africans buy, sell, breed and ship wild animals—white rhinos especially—as if they were racehorses or Pomeranians. A white rhino can sell for more than $30,000. Rural landowners are selling off their cattle, bringing in expensive game and charging admission. The country's private reserves now account for three times as much conservation land as its expansive national parks.

 But in the new democratic South Africa, if conservation continues to be a game for the white elite, the safety of rhino sanctuaries, public and private, cannot be ensured. Many public reserves sit on traditional lands. Today rural tribal communities want to get their land back, but a return to subsistence farming and cattle grazing inside the parks would be an ecological disaster. So it is important for conservationists and activists to work in partnership with the tribal communities to help them build their own game reserves and reap the benefits. Until that happens, the long-term survival of rhinos remains in doubt.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.