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‘The Last Animals’ Sheds Light on Rhino, Elephant Extinction

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The Last Animals, wildlife
Fatu and Najin, left, the only two female northern white rhinos left in the world, graze where they are kept for observation, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia county in Kenya, March 2, 2018. VOA

The death this month of 45-year-old Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on the planet, rings the alarm on the imminent extinction of other endangered animals.

The news also gives a renewed urgency to Kate Brooks’ documentary The Last Animals, about the threat poaching poses to the dwindling populations of rhinos and elephants.

In an interview with the Voice of America, filmmaker Kate Brooks spoke about the impact of poachers on the remaining rhinos. “Southern White Rhino population is around 20,000. With Northern Whites, the number is down to three, and the last male, Sudan, is hovering around the natural age of death and not in very good health.”

The day after this interview, Sudan died.

Sudan, the world’s last remaining male northern white rhinoceros, and his keeper at Ol Pejeta conservancy, Laikipia Plateau, Kenya, April 28, 2016. The conservancy is home to the last three white rhinos on Earth.
Sudan, the world’s last remaining male northern white rhinoceros, and his keeper at Ol Pejeta conservancy, Laikipia Plateau, Kenya, April 28, 2016. The conservancy is home to the last three white rhinos on Earth. VOA

Kate Brooks’ film The Last Animals was one of the 130 films showcased at the Environmental Film Festival in the nation’s capital. According to its Director of Programming, Brad Forder, Brooks’ film fit right in with the festival’s theme this year on Stories from the Frontlines, about environmental heroes, who are protecting the planet, wildlife, and endangered species. In the case of The Last Animals, the heroes are the park rangers trying to protect the dwindling herds of rhinos and elephants in African national parks.

Brooks says in the past ten years, more than a thousand rangers have been killed in clashes with poachers in conservancies and parks across Africa. She filmed deadly encounters at Kenya’s Garamba National Park.

She explained, “The decision to go to the Garamba National Park was really based on the fact that it is a place where there is a true intersection with the ivory trade and terrorism. That is the last place the white northern rhinos lived in the wild, and it is the very front lines of the ivory wars where people, poachers, and rangers, are being killed.”

The superstitious belief that rhino horn is an aphrodisiac or can cure cancer makes it the world’s most expensive animal commodity, and, in many parts of the world, it funds terrorist organizations. Despite an international ban on trade in ivory and rhino horn, Brooks says illegal trading continues, particularly in Asia.

the last animals
Najin (L) and her daughter Patu, the last two northern white rhino females, lie in their enclosure at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia National Park, Kenya March 7, 2018. VOA

“While filming in Vietnam, when we were boarding our flight to China, there was lots of individuals just filling up their suitcases, putting ivory (jewelry) on, maybe covering it up with their clothes but getting on the flight and walking straight through customs.”

Brooks’ film, The Last Animals, advocates stricter measures worldwide against that trade. She also hopes that documentaries like hers will inform people of the devastating consequences of rhino horn and ivory trading.

“I think the global consciousness is rising. Domestic ivory bans are going into effect and while South Africa might be one of the few countries left in the world where it’s okay to trade rhino horn domestically and be a country that’s still pushing to trade ivory internationally, increasingly, nobody wants it.”

Trophy, a documentary by Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, looks at South Africa’s policies, making the case that only legalized rhino horn “breeding,” which means trimming the horns off the animals every few years, can stop poaching and save rhinos. “That’s kind of the idea of utilizing animals in this ‘if it pays, it stays’ way,” says Schwarz. “Now, is that the answer? I don’t know. I’m here to raise questions.”

The Last Animals
In this photo taken, Aug. 19, 2016, a herd of elephants swim and drink water in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. VOA

One of the advocates of legalized rhino horn trade showcased in Trophy is South African farmer John Hume.

In the documentary, he holds a horn and explains, “On the black market, the retail value of this horn would be a quarter million dollars. The operation is painless. It will take two years before you guys do the same procedure again. All I need is for it to be legal.” To back up his position, he points out, “Give me one animal that has gone extinct while farmers are breeding it and making money out of it.”

Brooks disagrees. “South Africa recently legalized the domestic rhino horn trade. I don’t think it’s a solution. It’s actually creating the message that somehow it’s okay again. And all of that aside, there is also the issue of, is it humane? To even treat an animal in that way?’ One of the things you see in The Last Animals is that sometimes animals can be sedated and they don’t always wake up.”

While the debate continues, endangered animals die. In the past ten years, poachers have killed 150,000 elephants. Brooks says, the year she was born, in Garamba National Park alone, there were 22,000 elephants. Today, only 1200 remain. The numbers are bleaker for the northern white rhinos. After Sudan’s death, only two females remain. VOA

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Asteroids Are Falling On Earth’s Surface Twice As Often: Study

This enhanced impact rate poses a threat for the next mass extinction event.

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Asteroids
This Dec. 29, 1968, photo made available by NASA shows craters on the moon. For the past 290 million years, giant rocks from space have been crashing into Earth more than twice as often as they did in the previous 700 million years, according to a new study. VOA

Giant rocks from space are falling from the sky more than they used to, but don’t worry.

For the past 290 million years, large asteroids have been crashing into Earth more than twice as often as they did in the previous 700 million years, according to a new study in Thursday’s journal Science.

But no need to cast a wary glance up. Asteroids still only smack Earth on average every million or few million years, even with the increased crash rate. NASA’s list of potential big space rock crashes shows no pending major threats. The biggest known risk is a 4,200-foot (1.3-km) wide asteroid with a 99.988 percent chance that it will miss Earth when it whizzes very near here in 861 years.

Tell that to the dinosaurs. Most scientists think dinosaurs and a lot of other species went extinct after a huge space rock crashed into Central America about 65 million years ago.

Earth, Asteroids
Taurids meteor shower lights up the sky. The risk of asteroids hitting the Earth has grown over the years. Wikimedia

“It’s just a game of probabilities,” said study lead author Sara Mazrouei, a University of Toronto planetary scientist. “These events are still rare and far between that I’m not too worried about it.”

Mazrouei and colleagues in the United Kingdom and United States compiled a list of impact craters on Earth and the moon that were larger than 12 miles (20 km) wide and came up with the dates of them. It takes a space rock that’s half a mile (800 meters) wide to create holes that big.

The team counted 29 craters that were no older than 290 million years and nine between 291 million years and 650 million years old.

But we can see relatively few big craters on Earth because the planet is more than 70 percent ocean and past glaciers smoothed out some holes, said University of Toronto planetary scientist Rebecca Ghent, a study co-author.

Earth, Asteroids
These rocks were rare survivors from a very different time on Earth. Pixabay

Extrapolating for what can’t be seen brings the total to about 260 space crashes on Earth in the last 290 million years. Adding in other factors, the science team determined that the current space crash rate is 2.6 times more than the previous 700 million years.

Craters older than 650 million years are mostly wiped off on Earth by glacial forces so the scientists used impact craters on the nearby moon as a stand-in for holes between 650 million and 1 billion years old. The moon is a good guide for estimating Earth crashes, because it is close enough to be in the same bombardment path and its craters last longer.

Mixed reactions

So what happened nearly 300 million years ago?

“Perhaps an asteroid family was broken up in the asteroid belt,” Mazrouei speculated. The space rocks then headed toward the Earth and moon, and the planet got slightly more because it is a bigger target and it has higher gravity, Ghent said.

Oldest known asteroid family
An asteroid family. Wikimedia

Outside scientists are split about the research. Jay Melosh at Purdue said he found the number of craters too small to come to a reasonable conclusion, but Harvard’s Avi Loeb said the case was convincing.

Also Read: Newly Discovered Super-Earth Exoplanet May Sustain Primitive Life

Humans might not have emerged without mass extinctions from space rocks about 250 million and 65 million years ago, Loeb said in an email, adding, “but this enhanced impact rate poses a threat for the next mass extinction event, which we should watch for and attempt to avoid with the aid of technology.”

“This demonstrates how arbitrary and fragile human life is,” Loeb wrote. (VOA)