Yesterday I read two news events with disbelief - that graffiti artist Banksy had been arrested, and that there are only 6 northern white rhino left in the world. Even though I was reading these stories across many respected broadsheets, neither story seemed to add up.

I searched the official Banksy press releases and what was more credible was the paint on the wall: his homage to Vermeer with a burglar alarm in lieu of the pearl earring. Banksy had not been arrested, but had been spraying and stencilling 'The Girl With the Pierced Eardrum' in his hometown, Bristol.

Now story two, that there are only six of the northern white rhino breed left in the world, left me incredulous. Was this another example of lazy journalism failing to reveal the full complexities of rhino conservation and extinction? Only six left? In the entire world? It beggars belief. But as my rhino conservation expert friend Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes attested, it is crushingly true.

The northern white rhino is, in effect, already extinct. And this happened under the care of conservancy parks and a cross-continental breeding programme. Loss of habitat and trade in endangered species are rendering these prehistoric animals extinct, forever.

Despite this bleak situation, another white rhino, the southern white rhino has seen an upsurge in its population. The southern white rhino was close to extinction by 1900, when there were less than 50 in the world; today there are more than 20,000! White rhino conservation efforts were driven by South Africa's vibrant market economy for wildlife in the last 50 years.

My friend Michael believes in making conservation relevant to local people, whatever that takes. His work on creating viable markets for conservation is summarised in his web page Rhino Economics.

South Africa's successful rhino conservation economy rests on three pillars:

  • Recognising and actively developing legal markets for things that people value about rhinos, such as tourist viewing and trophy hunting
  • Allowing private landowners to legally own rhinos, thereby giving them strong direct incentives to manage them responsibly
  • Enabling all landowners (private, communal or public) to retain the money they earn from selling live rhinos and rhino products, thus making rhinos a lucrative long-term investment.