Angalifu, aged 44, died Sunday, December 14, 2014, in San Diego. Until the international news wire picked up the story, most of the world has never heard of him. Even I only knew his name after reading his obit. Sadly, most of the world also won’t give a second thought about his passing. But all of us should because Angalifu, and the others of his kind, is part of us. His death signals another log on our own funeral pyre, which soon won’t need any logs to get going the way we’re baking our planet in greenhouse gasses.
So who was Angalifu and why does he matter? He was one of only six northern white rhinos left in the world. THE WORLD. Once ranging across parts of Uganda, South Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the remaining five northern white rhinos all live in captivity: in Kenya (3), the San Diego Zoo (1), and in a zoo in the Czech Republic (1). One of the Kenyan rhinos is the only living male, and prospects for natural breeding—and the species’ survival—look grim.
His death “brings this wonderful species one step closer to extinction,” San Diego’s safari park curator Randy Rieches told the Associated Press. The zoo has saved some of Angalifu’s reproductive tissue and sperm so that some day they can try to artificially breed northern whites, the second largest land mammal on Earth. Past attempts have failed. Over the decades, endangered species breeding programs have come a long way. Among the more notable successes are the Przewalski’s horse, white-naped crane, and black-footed ferret. Thanks to artificial insemination, the ferrets were the first endangered species to be returned to the wild landscape from which they had disappeared.
But success has a price: billions of dollars have been spent trying to save just a handful of the world’s most endangered species. Though a strong proponent of species preservation, I accept that some will fade away over time through natural selection. Also, it can be hard to justify some types of spending that seem misplaced (see Timothy Lavin’s post “Why I Hate Pandas”). I happen to think pandas are adorable (I even got to cuddle a 1-year-old once), and I would hate to see them disappear, but Mr. Lavin makes a valid point: money could be better spent on preserving diverse habitats. Habitat loss is the world’s leading cause of wildlife and plant endangerment and extinction. For other species, we’ve simply just killed them all; to wit, the passenger pigeon that once flew in numbers so great, they would darken the sky for hours as flocks passed. Habitat destruction and wanton killing are things we can control, a sad and hopeful fact. Hopeful because—in many cases—all it would take is a shift in focus from instant gratification (read: more money now) to a desire to maintain a decent world for ourselves and our offspring. Sad because we seem to lack the will to make that shift.
Yes, sometimes it’s more complicated. People need to eat, and to eat they need to farm, and to farm, they need land. Luckily, today we have the technology to grow more food on less land and to do so without chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. (Ironically, some of that “technology” is actually ancient wisdom being given its long overdue due.) People also need land on which to live, but we don’t have to bulldoze every last twig in order to litter the wild with ranchettes. The problem isn’t a lack of cost-effective solutions to poverty and hunger. The problem is a lack of will to effect that change. (We could use a population policy, too, but that’s a topic for another post.)
Angalifu’s kind weren’t decimated for land; they were poached to impending extinction because a single rhino horn can fetch as much as $1.5M in the dismal, depraved world of trade in wildlife parts. Ground to a powder, rhino horn is believed to counteract everything from the ravages of rich food to erectile dysfunction. Thus, in “curing” our own dysfunction, we’ve emasculated an entire species into the history books. Does the northern white rhino have a chance with artificial breeding? Time may or may not say so.
So why does Angalifu matter? From a scientific and economic standpoint, because our planet’s biodiversity is headed south (metaphorically) at an alarming rate. In the words of the Convention on Biological Diversity, biological resources are vital to our economic and social development. Greater biological diversity allows for more “medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to such new challenges as climate change.” It’s time we stopped ignoring the rhino in the coal mine.
From a human standpoint, we should care about losing Angalifu because we still can. Many of us have enough relative wealth to support ourselves without having to stand in long lines for a bag of rice and bottled clean water. We can afford to care, and we should know that losing a species to greed is shameful. Poor people aren’t the ones buying powdered rhino horn.
From a universal standpoint, we should care because God put us in charge of taking care, and we are failing. If you don’t believe in God, then I hope at least you support the concept of stewardship. Who wants to live on a planet with Homo sapiens our only companions? Biodiversity enriches us. Extinction diminishes us.
Online dictionaries give four Swahili meanings for “Angalifu”: attentive, careful, cautious, considerate. Would that we had treated this beautiful species in kind.