Gone from our sight

In Passing: The western black rhinoceros (extinct 2013)

Even airlifting black rhinos away from poachers couldn't save its most endangered subspecies. (AP) Even airlifting black rhinos away from poachers couldn't save its most endangered subspecies. (AP)

The western black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes) emerged some seven or eight million years ago, as one of the sub-species of the black rhino. It used to be distributed widely throughout the savannah of central western Africa, but its numbers began to drop sharply once humans decided to hunt the creatures for sport and to harvest their horns, which were believed to have pharmacological uses, including as an aphrodisiac.

For much of the 20th century, black rhino numbers were among the highest of all rhino species, with some 850,000 individuals. By 1960, though, those numbers dropped to a mere 100,000 as the rhinos’ habitats were cleared for land settlement and agriculture, and as the creatures themselves were hunted without mercy for their valuable horns. By 1995, those meager numbers had dropped by a further 98%, at which point, there were fewer than 2,500 across all of Africa. The western black rhino, whose remaining numbers were in Cameroon, entered into conservation, but it was too little, too late to stop those who had far more resources and incentive to kill these animals than those tasked with protecting them.

In the end, poaching is probably what spelled the western black rhino’s final doom. Despite their dwindling numbers, a strong demand for their horn remained in southeast Asia, to such an extent that at one point, some conservationalists advocated the removal of rhinos’ horns to make them less tempting to poachers. Ultimately, the animals could not be protected in the wild. Even when sanctuaries were created for them, droughts drove the animals off the reservation, where more bullets awaited them.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature had the western black rhino on the business end of its “red list” of endangered species for some years, and the last one in the wild was sighted in 2006. It had been considered extinct unofficially for a few years, but only recently was the book officially closed on the species.

The western black rhino was not some species too specialized to survive, outside of contact with humans. It was nearsighted, but lived symbiotically with birds, which warned of danger. It was slow, but it was armored against predators. It was a grazer, but when riled, it could overturn a vehicle with a single, well-placed charge. All it took, really, was for humanity to learn of its existence, and that was that. The same could be said for just about any other species on the planet, which seems like an awful tragedy waiting to happen.

The extinction of this animal serves as an ecological cautionary tale, true, but it also serves as a professional one. Habitat destruction—a poor economy and low interest rates—rob the life and health industry of the resources it needs to recover fully from the Great Recession.

Poaching—in the form of intense competition from other distribution channels—is no less a threat to producers than horn-hunting was to the rhino. And the reasons for it might be just as dubious; ground rhino horn won’t really give you a better love life any more than buying insurance online will really get you a financial strategy tailor-made for your family’s specific needs.

Likewise, poor conservation efforts—namely the failure to recruit sufficient new talent—is already creating a personnel gap that will prove calamitous when all those Boomer producers retire and take their expertise with them without anybody to pass it to.

Ultimately, the rhino wasn’t equipped to save itself, and neither are life/health producers. Without the support they need from carriers, regulators and the public, the record low life sales that LIMRA points out might just be one more footstep on a march into oblivion. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just as the western black rhino was being declared extinct, a new species of wren called the Cambodian Tailorbird has been discovered, and right in the heart of the capital city of Phnom Penh, no less. The future will only be as dark as we let it be.

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