The name “rhino” conjures up the image of a prehistoric beast, a huge creature with skin of armor. This image is not surprising, since these intelligent and affectionate creatures have inhabited the Earth for 60 million years.
An extinct species of rhino that lived in Mongolia, (Baluchitherium grangeri), was the largest land mammal of all time. This hornless rhinoceros stood 18 feet (five and one-half meters) at the shoulder, was 27 feet (eight meters) long, and probably weighed 25 tons (23 metric tons), four times as much as today’s African bull elephant.
This species probably died out because of climate change.
The rhino may be the source of the belief in unicorns, legendary animals whose horn was said to be a panacea for all types of ailments. In 1298, the Venetian explorer Marco Polo described Sumatran rhinos as unicorns saying: “There are wild elephants in the country, and numerous unicorns, which are very nearly as big. They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick.”
Today, all five species of rhinos are perilously close to extinction. The rate of their decline is truly astounding: in the decade of the 1970s alone, half the world’s rhino population disappeared. Today, less than 15 per cent of the 1970 population remains, an estimated 10,000 to 11,000 worldwide.
The Javan and Sumatran rhinos are near extinction. Indian rhinos may be coming back from the brink. Of the two African species, the white rhino has rebounded from near extinction. (Contrary to its name, the white rhino is not really white. Its name is a mistaken translation of the Dutch word “wijde,” which means “wide” and refers to the rhino’s broad, square lips.)
The black rhino has not fared so well. As recently as 1970, an estimated 65,000 black rhinos could be found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. But in eastern Africa, 90 percent of them were killed in the 1970s. Now there are fewer than 2,500 left, in pockets in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, and Tanzania.
The black rhino grows to 14 feet (four meters) long, stands over 4.5 feet (1 meter) at the shoulder, and weighs up to 3,900 pounds (1770 kg). It is recognizable by its long, pointed, prehensile upper lip and two prominent horns, the longest of which averages 20 inches (50 cm). The horn is made up of millions of tightly compacted hairlike fibers.
The black rhino is a formidable herbivore. It inhabits bush country with thick cover, grasslands, or open forest, where it browses on a wide variety of plants.
Causes of Endangerment
Unlike most large mammals, habitat loss has not been a significant factor in the decline of rhinos. Rather, poaching for their horn has decimated rhino populations.
As early as the 5th century B.C., rhino horn was believed capable of rendering some poisons harmless. In Borneo, people used to hang a rhino’s tail in a room where a woman was giving birth, believing it would ease labor pains. Asians used rhino horn in traditional medicines for a thousand years without threatening the species’ survival.
It was not until the 1970s that rhinos declined dramatically, due to a surprising cause: the soaring price of oil. Young men in the Arab country of Yemen covet rhino horn for elaborately-carved dagger handles, symbols of wealth and status in that country. Until the 1970s, few men could afford these prized dagger handles. But Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries are rich in oil, and prices for this “black gold” climbed dramatically in that decade due to a worldwide oil shortage.
The result was a seven-fold increase in the per capita income in Yemen, a rise in wealth that made rhino horn dagger handles within the reach of almost everyone. This small country, with a population of 6 million at the time, suddenly became the world’s largest importer of rhino horn.
The value of rhino horn made it enormously profitable to poach rhinos and sell them on the black market. For example, in 1990, the two horns from a single black rhino brought as much as $50,000. Just like poaching for elephant ivory, poaching for rhino horn is simply too profitable for many subsistence farmers and herders to resist.
All trade in rhino horn is prohibited, since rhinos are protected under Appendix I of CITES. The ban on trade in rhino horns has not been very successful, however. A thriving black market in rhino horn has continued.
In 1993, the United States threatened to ban legal imports of wildlife from China, which has a large wildlife trade with the United States, if China did not start taking measures to stop illegal wildlife trade. In response, China made it illegal to sell, buy, trade, or transport rhino horns and tiger bones. Illegal stockpiles of rhino horns and tiger bones remain, however.
Protected Areas and Armed Guards
Rhinos live in some of the same African parks and reserves that provide habitat for elephants. Protection of elephant habitat was not enough. Rhinos were killed in protected areas because governments could not afford to patrol the parks to stop poachers.
Now, there are so few left that many rhinos are literally kept under armed guard. They forage during the day, accompanied by guards with rifles, and they are locked up at night under armed guard.
Rhino horn is so valuable though, that poachers have killed guards to get at the rhino.
The rhino’s plight has become so desperate that in some places conservation officials tranquilize rhinos and saw off their horns so poachers will have no cause to kill them. It is not known whether removing the horn impairs the rhino’s ability to survive or reproduce. It is known, however, that in some areas, a mother rhino uses her horn to defend her young from attacks by cats and hyenas.
There are Species Survival Plans (SSP’s) for four species of rhino. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden [Z&A] manages the black rhino. Other SSP’s are: Jacksonville Zoological Park [Z&A] (white rhino); Bronx Zoo/Wildlife Conservation Park [Z&A] (Sumatran rhino); Los Angeles Zoo [Z&A] (greater one-horned Asian rhino).
Questions for Thought
Is it enough to simply prohibit trade in endangered wildlife and wildlife parts? What if the laws against wildlife trade are not enforced?
Some people think the only chance to save rhinos from extinction is to reduce demand for rhino horn. Can you think of ways to do this?
What do you think of the practice of dehorning rhinos to protect them from poachers?
Activities: [CS1-1,CS1-4,CS1-9, General]
Words in bold italics can be found in the glossary.