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The majestic and endangered black rhinoceros: past, present and unknown future

The African black rhinoceros has long held the world’s fascination and concern. Historically, this iconic creature roamed vast expanses of sub-Saharan Africa. But rampant poaching, which decimated 98% of its population between 1960 and 1995, has left the species clinging precariously to existence.

Today, they are confined to mere pockets of protected areas. However, promising new research offers not only profound insights into the rhino’s past but a clarion call for its future conservation.

An evolving story

In the recent study titled “Historic Sampling of a Vanishing Beast: Population Structure and Diversity in the Black Rhinoceros”, published in Molecular Biology and Evolution, researchers delve deep into the rhinoceros’s genetic history.

Thomas Gilbert, one of the study’s lead authors, lamented that the very tragedy of the black rhinoceros, which has long been a target for hunters and poachers, makes it a prime candidate for such research.

But the intent of this exploration wasn’t mere scientific curiosity. Co-first author Binia De Cahsan Westbury highlights that understanding the rhino’s genetic history is instrumental for devising potent conservation strategies.

Genetic tapestry of the black rhinoceros

To accomplish this, the researchers sequenced the genomes of 63 museum specimens from 1775 to 1981 and 20 contemporary black rhinoceroses. This comprehensive genetic dataset significantly advances prior research. As Yoshan Moodley, another lead author, pointed out, the application of whole genome sequences has unearthed a wealth of details previously obscured by traditional markers.

Remarkably, the data unearthed six historical black rhinoceros populations, and four subpopulations. One significant revelation was the impact of tectonic rifts in Africa during the Pleistocene.

These geological upheavals fostered the evolution of previously unknown populations. Some of these ancient populations, Moodley notes, likely persist within the current Kenyan metapopulation.

Furthermore, the study identified patterns of isolation shaped by temporary removals of gene flow barriers, leading to varying levels of genetic divergence across different geographic regions.

Black rhinoceros offer a stark warning

The effects of population contraction were also evident, with samples showing profound genetic drift. Notably, southern African rhinoceroses suffered the most severe consequences, exhibiting the highest levels of inbreeding across all populations.

Some genetic markers revealed inbreeding even before the colonial era, pointing towards the enduring human impact on the rhinoceroses.

Consequently, the study makes an impassioned plea for immediate, targeted conservation action. Yoshan Moodley stresses the paramount importance of protecting the newly identified populations in East Africa. He also urges for meticulous genetic testing of black rhinoceroses in Kenya and Tanzania.

Moreover, distinct evolutionary groups like the Ruvuma and Maasai Mara-Serengeti should receive individual conservation focus to preserve their unique genetic profiles.

A legacy of conservation

Lastly, the study poignantly remembers Professor Mike Bruford of Cardiff University. A stalwart in conservation genetics, Bruford’s untimely demise has been felt keenly by both his family and the wider conservation community. Yet, his legacy endures, reminding the world of the unending quest to understand and protect our planet’s diverse genetic heritage.

In summary, while the African black rhinoceros’s past is fraught with challenges, its future remains in our hands. With rigorous research and concerted conservation efforts, there’s hope yet for this majestic creature to once again thrive in the wild expanses of Africa.

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