Around the world, conservation experts are dedicating their life’s work to saving wildlife species from the dark prospect of extinction. In celebration of Endangered Species Day on 18 May 2018, Wild talks to a few of the leading figures in the struggle to protect species in peril. By Arnold Ras

Pangolins: ‘The situation seems to be gaining momentum’

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Temminck’s ground pangolin. Picture courtesy of African Pangolin Working Group

Prof Ray Jansen, chairman of the African Pangolin Working Group, says:

In South Africa we are fortunate to share our home with one of four species of African pangolins, the Temminck’s ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii). These unique animals are the only group of mammals covered in hard, keratinaceous overlapping scales. They eat specific ants and termites, are predominantly nocturnal and solitary, and belong to their very own order, the Pholidota. All eight species are in huge trouble and our own ground pangolins are being persecuted relentlessly.

In 2016, 19.5 tonnes of pangolin scales left the African continent; last year it was 48.6 tonnes. This year it has already exceeded the 20-tonne mark. These are only the scales that are intercepted, which amount to less than 10% of the actual trade. For southern Africa, and South Africa in particular, the trend is similar. However, the bulk of the trade in this country is not in scales, but in live Temminck’s ground pangolins.

Currently, there are 42 cases of wildlife trafficking and the majority have yet to be finalised. The first jail sentence was handed down last year to a pangolin trader, who was sentenced to three years imprisonment. This year we have been fortunate enough to secure a seven-year jail term for a trader in Gauteng.

It is indeed a battle we are not winning, but it is important for the public to be aware of this situation. It seems to be gaining momentum and threatening the very existence of these peaceful and extremely rare mammals.

What can I do? Raise awareness – internationally, pangolins aren’t well known. Also, report pangolin sightings to the Africa Pangolin Working Group with as much details possible.

Rhinos: ‘We are losing three rhinos a day’

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Bonné de Bod at a crime scene in the Kruger National Park. Picture by Susan Scott

Bonné de Bod, wildlife television presenter and filmmaker, says:

The reality of rhinos going extinct in the wild hit home for many with the recent death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino. Of course, we have thousands* of the southern sub-species, so extinction seems a long way off. But the reality is that we are losing three rhinos a day**, one every eight hours to poaching. Clearly, it is not sustainable.

I’ve spent a lot of time at the source site with Kruger and iMfolozi rangers as well as in court watching our state prosecutors battle expensive defence teams. There is an incredible amount being done on the ground – more than any of us can imagine. But rhinos are defenceless, so by the time poaching gangs get to them, it’s too late. Much needs to change outside the parks where they live. Not only at community level, but also at the demand site.

In Asia I’ve seen the desire for expensive rhino horn jewellery and have met with chemotherapy patients who ingest the horn to help them with their cancer treatments. Wealth and cancer are growing in Vietnam. If we can’t stop the demand, we need to disrupt the criminal networks that run the illegal trade. It’s up to us, the public, to invest emotionally in turning this situation around. I do believe it can be done.

[*18,413 southern white rhinos in South Africa according to IUCN’s last report in April 2015]
[**national stats compiled by the Department of Environmental Affairs: 2013 – 1,004; 2014 – 1,215; 2,015 – 1,175; 2016 – 1,054; 2017 – 1,028]

What can I do? Support a reputable initiative like Unite Against Poaching and never share a rhino’s location on social media or any other digital platforms.

Vultures: ‘Poisoning is the number one threat’

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African white-backed vulture. Picture by André Botha

André Botha, special projects manager at Endangered Wildlife Trust and co-chair of the IUCN SSC Vulture Specialist Group, says:

Africa is home to 10 of the 15 species of Old World vultures occurring across Africa, Europe and Asia. Once common and widespread across the continent, vultures are undergoing unprecedented declines in Africa. Four species are now considered globally critically endangered and at very high risk of extinction, and three more are listed as endangered, according to the IUCN Red List of Species, 2018.

Poisoning is the number one threat to Africa’s vultures, but they face a number of other threats. These include electrocutions and collisions with energy infrastructure, habitat loss and fragmentation, and a lack of safe and reliable food sources, according to the recently completed CMS Multispecies Action Plan for the Conservation of African-Eurasian Vultures.

This 12-year plan aims to reverse the declines in vulture populations on three continents. In South Africa, we have a proud history of more than 45 years of concentrated conservation action by a range of stakeholders and organisations. However, a lot more needs to be done to ensure that Africa’s skies will be graced by these majestic birds well into the future.

What can I do? Because these birds are frequently vilified, their plight does not get a lot of support. Improve their public image by sharing some fascinating vulture facts. For instance, did you know that vultures play a very important role in preventing the spread of diseases like anthrax, rabies and tuberculosis?

Riverine rabbits: ‘Their behaviour makes them difficult to study’

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The super secretive riverine rabbit. Picture courtesy of Endangered Wildlife Trust

Cobus Theron, manager of Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Dryland Conservation Programme, says:

The riverine rabbit is arguably one of the most endangered and elusive mammal species in Africa. Listed as critically endangered, the species is predominantly threatened by habitat transformation and fragmentation. Riverine rabbits occur in two relatively distinct populations – one in the northern Cape and the other in the southwestern Cape.

They primarily use riverine areas as their habitat, where they feed and find shelter from the harsh arid environment. Their secretive behaviour has frustrated conservation efforts and makes them difficult to study. Conservationists have had to adopt innovative solutions to overcome these challenges. Endangered Wildlife Trust is leading the way by employing new location techniques such as specialised scent detection dogs and thermal imagery. We are also working closely with farmers to protect the species and its fragile dryland habitat.

Our ambitious target is to move this threatened rabbit away from the brink of extinction in the next decade.

What can I do? Do you think your farm or smallholding is the ideal habitat for riverine rabbits? Consider purchasing a camera trap and become a citizen scientist. If you do spot these fluffy bunnies, immediately send pictures to [email protected].

Have you ever spotted one of these endangered species? Share your sightings with other Wild fans and email your pictures to [email protected].