IT will soon be a month since the world’s last surviving male white rhino, Sudan, died after months of ill health at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on March 19.
Preyed upon to near-extinction, Sudan’s death left just two northern white rhinos Najin, Sudan’s daughter, and Fatu, his granddaughter.
The death of Sudan, while greeted with unsurprising sadness in the global conservation community, played out differently in Africa. Following especially the comments on African Twitter and articles in the media, this time there was a sense of mortification; that something horrible had happened. There was little of the cynicism that wildlife on the continent is no more than a nature ghetto preserved for the enjoyment of western tourists, and whose proceeds are pocketed by a corrupt African elite.
In decades working on conservation, I had rarely seen that kind of emotion. At 45, Sudan had already lived a long life, and with his health troubles, his death didn’t come as a surprise.
SENSE OF LOSS
The sense of loss, is probably down to two factors. For the first, one has to go back to 2016, to the controversy surrounding the relocation of rhinos from South Africa to Australiain a bid to establish a so-called “insurance population”.
The Australian Rhino Project, the charity behind the project, saidthe plan was “to establish an insurance population and ensure the survival of the species”, and the Australian herd could be flown back to Africa to re-establish wild populations there, when poaching, which has devastated rhino populations in Africa, becomes less of a threat.
For the rhino, that return might not be possible. Sudan’s death, and the fate of the white horn, is in part a dramatic failure by Africa to protect its critical nature.
Najin and Fatu are infertile. The death of Sudan is not just the death of a rhino patriarch. It spells the end of a line.
In an Africa where traditional family ties, clan, and often ethnicity, run deep, that can be jarring. Sudan’s death, is probably the first time that young Africans have confronted extinction in their lifetime as something real, not as history or a story in a Discovery Channel documentary.
TROUBLING PROSPECT AHEAD
Fast forward 30 years ahead. A once unthinkable idea, now looks likely. In the years to come, an African who wants to see an African rhino – and possibly elephant – is more likely to do so if she travels to a wildlife sanctuary in Australia or some such place than to a park on the continent. The meaning of that has to be unsettling.
Which ties to the second issue thrown up by the fate of the rhino. With parts of the continent recently facing the worst droughts in two generations, and alarms about cities like Cape Town in South Africa running out of water, there is a sense that disappearing wildlife and wild lands are a symbol of a deeper problem.
There have already been warnings that Africa and the world didn’t quite heed. Lake Chad was once one of Africa’s largest, and a lifeline of over 40 millionpeople. It’s disappearing. Over the last 60 years, its size has shrunk by 90% as a result of extended drought, over use, and other climate change pressures.
This has hit hard pastoral and fishing communities that depend on it and is widely seen as one of the factors fueling conflict in the region, flung desperate unemployed young men into the arms of extremist groups like Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and also contributed to the migrant exodus to Europe.
Beyond making the case for rallying to see ecological crises as having potential for regional and global security impacts, at national levels a failure to police protected forests against illegal loggers, and wildlife parks against poachers, is not a dysfunction that ends in the bushes.
It will often express itself in a failure to deal with crime on the streets in the cities, corrupt government, a dangerous dalliance between criminals and sections of law enforcement, and dry taps.
It’s perhaps no accident that Botswana, the country with the best conservation record in Africa, is ranked by Transparency International as the least corruptin Africa, and has even been compared to the fictional country Wakandain Marvel’s superhero blockbuster “Black Panther”. It’s also one of the continent’s most democratic, stable, and richest countries.
Rwanda, the least corrupt country in East Africa, leads the region in several other rankings, including the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, and tops the continent in effectiveness of government. It’s also a model of conservation, especially of the mountain gorillas, and the country with the biggest global naming ceremony for them – or any other animal – called “Kwita Izina”.
In Africa conservation management and diligent environmental stewardship, then, are fairly reliable proxies for broader good governance.
It is a less complex task than running a country. A government that can’t secure a forest that is a water tower for a city, will struggle to build drains to carry away flood waters or to maintain the sewer system.
And the fellow who kills a rhino and traffics its horn to Asia to be ground into an aphrodisiac or to treat gout, is likely the same person who has a construction company that will bribe to get a $25 million contract for a road, bank half of the money abroad, and build a shoddy road – if at all.
Sudan is what happens when the bad guys win. Seems Africa is finally becoming afraid.
–Kaddu Sebunya (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President African Wildlife Foundation.