Animals

Looking prehistoric: observations on rhinos and extinction

Is the rhinoceros a relic of the past? (Petroglyph in Namibia).

As rhinos grow increasingly threatened—in the wild and in museum halls—they become a symbol of all animals suffering possible extinction. But rhinos have long had such an image. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, those who encountered rhinoceroses, saw them as prehistoric relics, and expressed a sense of inevitability to their extinction. Even as late as 1980, science writer Edward Ricciuti wrote: “The rhino is a zoological museum piece, a holdover from times long past, a loner that is unadaptable and rather stupid.”

People perceived the rhinoceros as unfit to survive in the modern era. “Like men of the old stone age,” wrote naturalist-hunter Herbert Lang in 1920, “with but few implements for defense or attack compared with the multitude of destructive weapons in our times, the rhinoceros seems to lag ages behind in the development of its various senses.” The rhinoceros’ inability to adapt to human technology, Lang wrote, leaves it “hopelessly doomed by modern firearms.” What now seems a tragic irony—hunters shooting an animal they recognized they were implicit in endangering—to them looked not like irony, but the inevitability of a thing called “progress.”

After killing his share of rhinoceroses, President-adventurer Theodore Roosevelt paused to observe one at rest. “Look at him,” reflected his son, Kermit, “standing there in the middle of the African plain, deep in prehistoric thought.” The elder Roosevelt agreed: “Indeed the rhinoceros does seem like a survival from the elder world that has vanished; he was in place in the Pliocene, he would not have been out of place in the Miocene, but nowadays he can only exist at all in regions that have lagged behind, while the rest of the world, for good or for evil, has gone forward.”

This sense of melancholy over a species whose numbers were indeed declining continues to exist today. While some activist groups employ more optimistic rhetoric, insisting endangered species can be saved, others look at species “on the brink” as having an inevitable end.

Are we already mourning the extinction of the Javan rhinoceros?

After the turn of the last century, wildlife biologists and educators at the Wildlife Conservation Society sat to discuss their future projects and funding needs. As they discussed their progress in saving species and habitats, they found themselves forced to admit that despite their best efforts, some species continued to struggle for survival. With tears in their eyes, leading conservationists, whose lifework is to save species, agreed that the Javan rhino population was beyond repair. Viewing its extinction as inevitable, they cut funding for its conservation.

Imagining scientists growing emotional about extinction conjures a strange mixture of humility and ego. They admit humans caused habitat loss or over-hunting, and that subsequent human efforts to undo that damage failed. Along with these contradictions of human agency, goes an essential feeling of loss.

The idea of extinction arouses something fundamental in human nature. We mourn loss. But when it comes to species extinction, what are we mourning? Is it the lives of the individual animals themselves? The suffering of a population? Or, is it an aesthetic of a nature we have always known?

This is part of an ongoing series, Understanding Extinction, with research supported by the Animals & Society Institute Fellowship.

[Portions here excerpted from my book, Rhinoceros (Reaktion 2008).]

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Art or nature?: considering the post-mortem poaching of rhinos

Dali faces his muse in this photograph by Philippe Halsman. Photo courtesy of the Salvador Dali Museum.

The surrealist artist Salvador Dali believed the horn of the rhinoceros to be among the most perfectly constructed objects in nature for its logarithmic spiral that maintains the same curve as it grows. Upon being given one as a gift, he exclaimed, “This horn will save my life!” Dali strived to mimic its pattern in painting, trying to lift the delicate horn from the lumbering form of the whole rhinoceros.

A string of post-mortem poaching is now forcing us to consider whether rhinoceros and their horns are art or nature. Since May of this year, rhino horns and heads have been stolen from museum exhibits in England, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and France. Another was taken from an auction house in Essex. While at first the idea of thieves making off with monstrous rhinoceros heads may conjure comical images, these unexpected robberies are well-organized and increasingly successful.

In the Belgium town of Liege, a man pulled a rhino horn off a specimen in the zoological museum, tear-gassed the guards, and took off towards the Netherlands in a car waiting outside. When the car was apprehended at the border, the two thieves told investigators they were supposed to leave the horn at a statue in Helmond, for an anonymous buyer paying them $4275 for the heist. At the Natural History Museum of Belgium, in Brussels, three men smashed through a window with their stolen rhinoceros head and successfully fled the scene. In the most recent robbery, in Blois, France, thieves dragged a two hundred and twenty pound rhinoceros head along the natural history museum’s floor and escaped successfully with the trophy.

The string of robberies has caused concern in the museum community. The Natural Science Collections Association has recommended museums remove rhino horns from public display, and even suggest hiding information about rhinos and rhino horns in their collections from public view on websites and collection databases.

Valued for traditional Chinese medical treatments and Middle Eastern dagger handles, rhino horn has been known to sell at a higher price than gold. But rhinos all over the world are endangered. Along with these museum robberies, poaching in Africa has also been more frequent this year than in recent memory. Some scientists and conservationists have even begun to label rhino poaching a drug war. But why has it spread to European museums?

Two years ago, the European Commission ruled that rhinoceros trophies, including the horn, could be legally sold and traded. Their intent was not to encourage the trade in rhino horn for medicine, but to create a free market for rhinos as art and artifact. Previous to this ruling, all rhinos—living and dead—were protected by endangered species laws. Stuffed and mounted rhinos shared the same protection as their living descendants. Recently, the Commission updated its regulations, working with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to institute a ban on the trade of all rhino horn. Only horn that has been carved (thus making it more art than nature) before 1947 (more artifact than commercial commodity) is excluded.

The Heads and Horns collection of the Bronx Zoo, now dismantled, is at once art, artifact, and nature. Photo courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The taxidermied rhinoceros heads stolen are at once art, artifact, and natural specimen. Displayed in the halls of museums, they represent the nineteenth-century era of trophy hunting. They are visual symbols of African colonization. And they are associated, sometimes, with famous figures of exploration or royalty. Even if the horn has not been carved, taxidermy itself is an art form. Thus, when a rhinoceros head is stolen, it robs us of an object of historical and artistic worth.

The problem of post-mortem poaching is a problem for those regulating trade in art and in animals. It calls attention to the perceived value of animals outside of their natural habitats. If a rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold, should we not invest in rhino futures? Or, will we simply lock all specimens away and forget the living animals associated with such priceless objects?

References:

Rylan Miller appears to have coined the useful term “post-portem poaching” in his article on the subject, “Thieves Just Stole ANOTHER rhinoceros head from a European museum,” Business Insider.

Andy Bloxham, “Police investigating international smuggling ring after theft of rhino head,” The Telegraph.

“Rhino head stolen from Brussels museum,” Saving Rhinos.

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Mountain lion in Connecticut: the re-wilding of eastern forests

Earlier this month, a mountain lion wandered through the campus of a private school for boys in Greenwich, Connecticut. Staff snapped a quick photograph through a window and, though a bit blurred, even skeptical experts agree it appears to be a mountain lion.

This photograph taken by school staff in Greenwich, Connecticut started talk of mountain lions in the region earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Greenwich Time/Greenwich Police Department

Mountain lions have not lived in significant numbers in the eastern states since at least the 1930s. Viewed by early Americans as a threat to domestic animals and competition for wild game, mountain lions were relentlessly hunted. In addition, their forested habitat became deforested for lumber supplies and farmland.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently reported the native subspecies, eastern mountain lion, or eastern cougar, extinct. Their study, released in March of this year, maintained that despite nearly six hundred reported sightings in northeastern states, the subspecies itself is unlikely to exist. The USFWS recommended removing the extirpated animal from the endangered species list.

Last Saturday, a woman in an SUV crashed into a mountain lion on a highway near Milford, Connecticut. There it was—evidence in the form of an actual animal body that mountain lion roam the forests of the Northeast. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) arrived on the scene and took the corpse for further study. They insist it is the same animal seen in Greenwich and will be comparing scat found at the previous site to the DNA of this animal. They will also be determining if the mountain lion had escaped from captivity by looking for signs of veterinary treatments and its relationship to the South American subspecies, which is normally the type kept as pets .

The DEP insists that the animals are the same solitary cat who must have escaped captivity, despite evidence to the contrary. The dead mountain lion had not been declawed or neutered. What’s more, on Sunday—the day after the dead animal was found—sightings continued around Greenwich. Even physical evidence in the form of cougar prints around a deer kill, did not seem to be swaying the experts.

A healthy skepticism?

Why do experts doubt the ability of locals to identify creatures in their own backyard? Some of their skepticism comes from mistaken identities. Bobcats and coyote are known to live in Connecticut and officials have found several reported sightings of mountain lions lead only to evidence of these other wild critters.

The nearest established populations of wild mountain lions are in Florida and Missouri, both different subspecies than that which was native to the Northeast. However, reported sightings have increased in the last decade in the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. People have also seen mountain lions on U.S soil, east of the Mississippi in the states around the Great Lakes and the Midwest. Connecticut is now more forested than it has been in historic times, perhaps creating a welcoming environment for wandering species.

Mountain lions in Connecticut--a thing of the past? This photo by D.D. Burnham, "A mountain lion in the wild," depicts the western subspecies in Colorado.

The controversy has garnered several stories in local, as well as national papers, including the New York Times. Headlines have called the mountain lion both “beautiful,” “elusive,” and “mysterious.” Though many Connecticut residents are fearful, the image of this large, wild cat roaming only seventy miles from the sprawling Manhattan metropolis also inspires wonder.

The sublimity of re-wilding

Whether or not it is the original native species, or simply the western species migrating to new territory, in its juxtaposition of urban and wild, a mountain lion in Connecticut is a sublime sight.

The recent report of the USFWS begs the question: why are there so many reported sightings now? Is it an odd coincidence—or is there more to the story? While we await the results of the necropsy of the dead mountain lion, we are left to wonder if the news of eastern cougar extinction hit someone (or some group) so hard, they launched a plan to reintroduce a related subspecies, secretly, into Eastern forests. The other, more likely possibility, is that people who had previously seen mountain lions had been too unsure, or too afraid of being called crazy, to report their encounters.

There are several “ghost” species roaming (or not roaming) American forests. We saw an uproar just a few years ago when scientists in the swampy forests of the South reported seeing ivory-billed woodpeckers—a species long thought to be extinct. While some doubted the veracity of the sighting, many locals admitted to knowing the birds inhabited their forests. Those who had reported such information previously had been dismissed as ignorant of the very landscape in which they live.

Sightings of supposedly extinct animals have become a dialogue between outside “experts” and local peoples. Anthropologists have studied traditional environmental knowledge in remote corners of the globe. Now, such studies might be needed in America’s own wild, or in the case of Connecticut, re-wilded landscapes.

References:

“Eastern Cougar,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region

Mosi Secret, “Claims of Mountain Lions Roaming in Connecticut Drew Groans…Until Saturday,” New York Times

Barbara Heins and Ronald DeRosa, “DEP: Slain Mountain Lion Was Held in Captivity,” TollandPatch

MariAn Gail Brown, “DEP’s stance on mountain lions disquieting,” Connectictut Post

Connecticut Mountain Lion: Cougars of the Valley

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