Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2021-22 Project Fellows.
As the leaves changed color above me, I spent the autumn in my backyard reading printed out pages of PhD theses from the 1970s and 80s. They were by conservationists Marcus Borner and Nicolas van Strien, who as young men both attempted to study one of the most cryptic mammals on Earth: the Sumatran rhino. Though they worked for months in some of the most remote rainforests on Earth, they saw living rhinos only a handful of times.
Despite the adventurous nature of the men’s excursions, the theses weren’t exactly gripping reading, focused as they were on the traces left by animals — footprints, wallows, twisted branches, even shit — and the possible number of animals left, or more often, the numbers already lost. Borner and van Strien were mostly following ghosts.
As a Knight Science Journalism Project Fellow, I took a deep dive into the scientific and conservation history — shrouded as it was — of the Sumatran rhino. I was already deeply familiar with my main character, having written over a dozen articles on the animal, and having met all the living captive animals except one. But digging this deep into the history of the species was new.
During the hotter-than-usual autumn in Minnesota, I couldn’t help but be distracted by news reports about the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow and President Biden’s attempts — so far unsuccessful — to pass climate legislation. Or the news out of Brazil of two young indigenous children killed in an accident caused by illegal gold miners who’d invaded their land — just another sad story from a nation where indigenous people are routinely targeted.
Over that autumn, I would run into moments of doubt. Why was I working on a book proposal about Sumatran rhinos? Shouldn’t I be throwing myself into climate change, indigenous rights, forests — all things I’d covered in the past?
Why write about wild things when we couldn’t even care for our own species? As someone who has written about wildlife conservation and extinction for over a dozen years, I continually run into this question of why. And it’s not always my inner voice asking — often it’s other people. No one asks an entertainment journalist why they write about the private lives of celebrities. The answer there is easy: There’s money in it. But writing about wildlife? Books about extinction? Don’t we have bigger problems?
Will the world keep spinning without the Sumatran rhino? Of course. It didn’t stop spinning when three men strangled the world’s last pair of great auks — and then boot-stomped the final egg. It didn’t stop when the last golden toad croaked for a mate who would never come. And it won’t stop spinning when the last vaquita is pulled up by fishing nets in the Gulf of California. It would even keep spinning without us, the most vainglorious and self-aggrandizing of animals (though it’s hard for us to imagine our mother rock would ever be so callous).
So why does the Sumatran rhino’s ongoing survival matter? Well, I can throw a bunch of ecological, sustainable language at a reader. I can explain how Sumatran rhinos, like all megafauna or apex consumers play a number of roles in their ecosystems that won’t be replaced, and how their disappearance would lead our ecosystems to become less rich and resilient. I can explain how their feeding habits, wallows, and even their excessive amounts of dung provide invaluable complexity to the already stunningly complex rainforests, perhaps even creating novel habitats for other species. You know all that science. Blah blah blah.
I can throw in questions about the ethics of extinction: Do we as a species have a right to obliterate another life form? And what does it say about us that we have wiped out so many others, often quite willingly, and continue to do so?
I could even talk about how we already depauperated our world during the initial round of megafauna extinctions — and how by the time civilizations rose between the Tigris and Euphrates, we had already created an ecological world that was full of holes. We haven’t really known intact ecosystems for some 10,000 years, and maybe that’s a cautionary tale we should heed as we stumble into this sixth mass extinction. It’s an open question: How many species can we wipe out, before we find our environment no longer capable of maintaining us?
But the truth is, really, that I wanted to write about Sumatran rhinos, because I’d met Sumatran rhinos. And, put simply, I really liked them. They are weird and hairy and they sing. They are oddly docile and quite personable. The truth was simple: I wanted to write a book about Sumatran rhinos because I wanted a world where they still existed, and I thought, maybe, there’s an off chance, tiny but possible, that a book might help the efforts to save them. The only reason the world still contains wolves, whales, gorillas, tigers, and any rhinos at all is because of people who cared and people who spent their short lives doing something about it.
And if the Sumatran rhino goes extinct regardless — well, I could pull stitches through my broken heart with the thought that at least I’d tried.
The crisis for Sumatran rhinos isn’t existential for us — but it is for them. And I believe they matter.
As the last of the autumn leaves fell — and the cold finally came — I began to write.
Jeremy Hance is a writer and freelance environmental journalist.