The mega-herbivores are extremely threatened by poaching — driven by a high demand for their horns — and habitat loss
A million wildlife species are witnessing a drastic decline in its population and are at the brink of extinction around the world. Among these wildlife animals are the rhinoceros.
They have been around for over 40 million years. At the beginning of the 20th century, 500,000 rhinos roamed Africa and Asia. By 1970, rhino numbers dropped to 70,000, and today, around 27,000 rhinos remain in the wild.
On World Rhino Day, we deep dive into this species of animal – from how many are left to what makes them so rare.
Species of rhinos
There are five species of rhinos that exist today. They are the Greater One-Horned Rhino (sometimes called the Indian Rhino), the Black Rhino, the White Rhino, the Sumatran Rhino and the Javan Rhino.
Of these, three of them — the black rhino, the Javan rhinoceros, and the Sumatran rhino — are listed as critically endangered.
World Rhino Day is observed on September 22 every year to celebrate all the five species of rhinoceroses – black and white (in Africa),and greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan (in Asia).The theme of World Rhino Day 2021 is ‘Keep the Five Alive’.#WorldRhinoDay2021 pic.twitter.com/WCdTiRv4Zr
— Tarun Singh Bandral (@bandral_tarun) September 22, 2021
The white rhino is considered near threatened with decreasing populations, and the greater one-horned rhinoceros is designated as vulnerable with increasing populations.
Greater One-Horned Rhino: The Greater One Horned rhino is one of the three rhino species found in Asia. It is one of the few species which has witnessed an increase in population over the past few years. The Indian rhino was at the brink of extinction in the early 20th century. There were less than 200 rhinos left at the time. India managed to increase its population to more than 3,700 by 2020. India is home to more than 80 percent of the greater one-horned rhino population of the world. Rare one-horned rhinos can be found in Assam, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh. However, despite stringent measures, poachers continue to hunt them. In July of 2020, India lost 14 rhinos, including one-horned rhinos after heavy floods hit the Kaziranga National Park in Assam.
Black Rhino: Black Rhinos are native to the eastern and southern parts of Africa. Between 1960 and 1995, the population of Black Rhino shrunk by a massive 98 percent to merely 2,500. But, its population has doubled in the last 20 years to around 5,600 now. White Rhino Unlike its name, the White Rhino looks just like Black Rhino, however, has a different lip shape. Its name comes from the West Germanic word ‘weit” which means wide. The white rhino also has two subspecies — northern and southern white rhino. There are around 18,000 species of White Rhino left in the world. Most of them are found in Africa’s grassy plain — South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya. The northern white rhino is on the brink of extinction, with only two of them left on the planet. Both northern white rhinos — Fatu and Najin — are female and are currently living at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The last male northern white rhino died in 2018.
It is with great sadness that Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Dvůr Králové Zoo announce that Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino, age 45, died at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on March 19th, 2018 (yesterday). #SudanForever #TheLoneBachelorGone #Only2Left pic.twitter.com/1ncvmjZTy1
— Ol Pejeta (@OlPejeta) March 20, 2018
Fatu and Najin can’t get pregnant.
Sumatran Rhino: The Sumatran rhino, popularly known as Asian rhino with two horns, is the second most endangered of all rhinos. Most of them are living in Indonesia under heavy protection. There are fewer than 80 of these rhinos which are on the brink of extinction.
The species witnessed a rapid decline because of deforestation and poaching. More than 70 percent of the population has been depleted in the last two decades. The Sumatran rhino’s habitat is very close to China, one of the main destinations, along with Vietnam, for creating a demand for rhino horn.
In 2019, the last female Sumatran rhino, who was about 25 years old, died at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary in Tabin Wildlife Reserve.
The Sumatran is the smallest and hairiest of all the surviving rhinos. It is said to be the closest living relative to the now extinct woolly rhino.
Javan Rhino: Javan Rhino is one of the world’s rarest animal species. There are less than 75 of them left. Most of the Javan rhinos are at Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, Indonesia.
Javan rhinos are often confused with one-horned rhinoceros but have a smaller head and lesser skin folds. It once roamed across north India but turned extinct in the South Asian country in the 20th century.
The Javan rhino is one of the rarest large mammals on earth, and was declared extinct in Vietnam in 2011.
Threats faced by rhinos
All species of rhino are extremely threatened by poaching and habitat loss. Rhino parts are considered a high value gift item and certain cultures believe that they have medicinal properties, which has led to extreme overhunting throughout the last few centuries.
Even though the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international trade of rhino horn in 1977, poaching continues to pose the biggest threat to rhinos.
According to the World Wildlife Funds, many horns still find their way into the illegal market, mostly in Vietnam, where weak law enforcement makes it easier for vast criminal networks to grind them up to sell for traditional medicines.
In China, rhino horn can enter the consumer market as high status antiques or as investment purchases, often carved into expensive bowls and bangles.
Rhino poaching levels reached record highs in 2015, with at least 1,300 animals slaughtered in Africa; that number decreased to 691 in 2017 and to 508 in 2018.
Additionally, climate change and agriculture have resulted in habitat loss. As human populations grow, the spaces available for rhinos has shrunk, also increasing the likelihood of dangerous human-rhino conflict.
Another threat to rhinos are wars. For instance, the northern white rhino once roamed over vast areas of Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
However, today we are left with only two females on the planet after the death of the last male Sudan, the entire species is now ‘functionally extinct’.
One of the main reasons for their decline was the high level of poaching that took place in these countries, particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo, as civil war and unrest led to unchecked and corrupt political administration.
What we can do
Extreme rhino conservation is helping in improving the numbers as is evidenced by the improvement in the status of the greater one-horned rhino, which went from endangered at the turn of the century to vulnerable in 2008 thanks to protection and habitat management in India and Nepal.
Moreover, people all over the world can contribute symbolically adopting a rhino or signing World Wildlife Fund petitions established to stop wildlife crime.
With inputs from agencies