The idea of introducing a species to Australia might make every eco-conscious Aussie's head spin. After all, this is a continent that has been radically transformed by introduced and invasive species, and not for the better. Many of its unique, ancient, endemic species have been wiped out or are now threatened due to these foreign invaders. Some of the invasive species have been accidentally introduced, but with others it has been deliberate — often with the best of naive intentions.
So the idea of purposely introducing another species, all in the name of conservation, comes with an ominous sense of foreboding. Even so, it might be the only place where the world's remaining rhino species can safely be harbored.
Yes, imagine it: rhinos roaming the outback. It's the wild vision of some conservationists who see the vast savannas and rainforests of Australia, as well as the nation's thriving eco-tourism culture and strict wildlife protections, and imagine a second chance for one of nature's most iconic creations, reports The Conversation.
Obviously, the best place for rhinos is in their native habitats, a once-vast range that stretched from the savannas of Africa to the rainforests of southeast Asia. But the ever-steady march of human encroachment has left those habitats carved up by clearings, fencing, roads and other obstructions, with no sign of letting up. And then there's the poaching — the true existential threat to these disappearing megafauna.
A single rhino horn can fetch up to $300,000, a hefty sum in the many of the parts of the world that make up the native rhino range, and protections and infrastructure in these developing countries has been largely insufficient at staving off illegal rhino hunters. The result is that all of the remaining species of rhino in the world are severely endangered. In the case of the northern white rhino, only two specimens remain alive, both female.
Why this crazy plan makes sense
So should we send them to Australia? While the idea should be met with a fair share of healthy skepticism, it's one that's worth hearing out. For one, most of Australia's ideal rhino habitats are in no threat of serious human encroachment; by comparison to other parts of the world, Australia's human population is minuscule compared to land area. As part of the developed world, it has a strong rule of law, strict wildlife protections, and minimal poaching problems. Furthermore, much of the native scrubland and outback is ideal rhino habitat; the animals should have no problem adapting.
And while Australia might be the perfect habitat for rhinos, rhinos might also be the perfect species to introduce to Australia (if a species has to be introduced). Rhinos are slow breeders, and are fairly easy to keep in check. There's little threat of rhino populations escaping their monitoring zones and spreading out rapidly across the continent. These animals can be kept within well-defined boundaries and enclosed areas and their impact on the native Australian landscape can be held in check.
Of course, all of this would be entirely for the purpose of conserving rhino populations so that they can eventually be reintroduced back into their native habitats. Until those native habitats are safe, or until rhino populations can safely stabilize, Australia might just be the perfect halfway-home.
It's a controversial idea, but it's already one with some legs. For instance, one group, the Australian Rhino Project, is working to establish a white rhino population in Australasia.
One thing's for sure: as rhino populations around the world continue to plummet, desperate times will call for desperate measures. Soon enough, Australia might just be the last bastion left for these magnificent beasts.