These latest news are very poignant to me, but I had been thinking about rhinos for a while now. Recently there was a controversy about the role of trophy hunting rhinos to raise money for rhino conservation. The Timbavati Game Reserve Chairman Tom Hancock, a reserve which admittedly has done a lot to preserve rhinos, posted an open letter expressing his opinion that rhino trophy hunting has a place as a valuable source of income for rhino conservation (the original letter seems to have been removed from the Timbavati site, but can be read here). These thoughts have angered many people, who basically commented that rhinos should not be hunted, and that they should be protected either because they generate a revenue through tourism, or because we should protect rhinos as a matter of ethics.
The reason why I got so interested in the rhino debate is the following. I am interested in conservation, and I know that, of all animals, amphibians are benefiting the least from conservation efforts. In addition, amphibians are the group of vertebrates that has the largest number of species at risk of extinction. This is because amphibians are threatened by both human activities and newly emerging infectious diseases (Ranavirus and Batrachochytrium dendrobatis). To me, the recent rhino news show that people understand the need for, and are prepared to:
1) protect the environment which a species needs to exist in the wild
2) take additional measures on top of (1) to protect the individual animals
3) invest to set up a genetic database to help the conservation of rhinos.
I like rhinos a lot, and I am very happy all the three things above are done for their conservation and management. But I'd dearly love to see the same efforts to be done for amphibians. Amphibians are being literally hammered by infectious diseases, and a number of species have gone extinct because of these infections. I have tried to obtain research funding to test if there are any genes that confer resistance to these diseases, with the hope we could use this knowledge to protect the most at risk species. But unfortunately amphibian are small, modest and, Kermit aside, not that famous and charismatic, so that was not a priority. Colleagues also interested in amphibian conservation have problems getting funds for this kind of research.
I do not believe that we should spend less on the conservation of any species to divert the funds for another. What I believe in is that we should accept that we must invest more, much more, in conservation. So, if we are happy to invest to give one more chance to rhinos, can we try to do the same for frogs and newts?