As our menagerie of endangered species grows, Max and I are learning so much about so many creatures , some about which we have a passing knowledge and others we know nothing about; two of the former are RIcky and Suzi, but even though we had a general idea of why these beautiful animals are endangered, we are still learning the specifics of why they need our protection and what we can do to help them. Conservation is, after all, a never-ending process of education and action.
Ricky and his family are the smaller of the two African rhino species and are found in East and South Africa. One of his most distinguishing characteristics — besides his horn– is his hooked upper lip. Black rhinos are browsers, not grazers, which means they eat from branches, not the ground. The hook helps them strip shrubs and bushes of their vegetation, giving them a cuter overbite than anything I had before braces. The black rhino has two prominent horns which gives them their Latin name, Biscornis, and the horns continually grow from the base throughout a rhino’s lifetime and they are made of keratin, like our fingernails. Sadly, these massive fingernails are why the Black Rhinoceros is endangered. In southeast Asia and China, the horns are used in traditional medicine as a way to increase male virility and cure impotence; desire for rhino horn is so strong in the region that between 1960 and 1995, the black rhino population in East Africa plummeted 98% to less than 2500. Today, conservation efforts have helped increase their numbers to around 5600 but that isn’t enough to remove them from the endangered species list. Groups like the World Wildlife Fund are aiding in translocation programs in Namibia and are helping Kenyan Wildlife Services officials create DNA databases which connect poached rhinos to horns that are being sold. My interest in rhino preservation and conservation lies in how to navigate the cultural differences that can create roadblocks to changing mindsets in populations who still view RIcky and his brethren as commodities, and not animals worth preserving.
Suzi and her family make their homes amongst the kelp beds of the North Pacific. These gentle creatures are related to weasels and consume invertebrate shellfish like mussels, clams and sea urchins by using rocks and shells to break them open. Because they prevent massive colonization of these invertebrates, they are considered a keystone species. Males live in harems while the females raise the young, nursing them for three months before the juveniles are ready to make their own way in the world. Sea otters seek out kelp beds because they sleep on the ocean’s surface, and tying themselves into the kelp keeps them from floating away from their food sources. Suzi also ties her babies into the kelp to keep them secure while she goes off to hunt. The sea otter does have a few natural predators – orcas and great white sharks being the most common — but as is usually the case, humans are by far the greatest danger to these beautiful babies. Human/sea otter conflict originated with trappers, who relentlessly hunted them for their pelts. Because a sea otter doesn’t have an insulating fat layer like a while does, their fur is the most dense of any animal, with upward of one million hairs per square inch of skin. This allows them to live their entire lives in the sea without their skin ever getting wet (nature is pretty freaking amazing wouldn’t you say?). Of course, once the demand for otter coats died out, the threat changed course. Today, it’s commercial fishing, especially in the form of ghost plastic, as well as the ever-present threat of oil spills that we must now address in order to protect Suzi and her brood.