My first encounter with a rhino was in a zoo in Asia. As a young girl, I came face to face with a Sumatran rhino; similar to the ones my great grandmother had told me that she had seen roaming in the Borneo jungles. Though large in stature, it had a quiet nature about it, seemingly friendly. I remember being in awe of this creature, wondering if I would ever spot it in the wild.
The sad reality of our generation is that many of our wildlife are on the road to extinction, some more dangerously than others. The rhinos, who once roam the lands far and wide are now reduced to a countable population fighting to stay alive. You can still spot a rhino in the wild in Africa, but only the white rhinos are thought to be at a healthier population count.
Time is slowly running out for the rhinos, with wildlife groups predicting that rhinos only have 10 years left before they go extinct if we don’t put an end to poaching.
The rhinos, or rhinoceros is one of five still existing species that have descended from the odd-toed ungulates. These large mammals are the second largest mammal in the world after the elephant and are able to weight more than one ton. Rhinos are herbivorous animals that are found in Asia and Africa. There are five living rhino species in the world – two in Africa and three in Asia.
The white rhino is one of two rhino species found in Africa. The white rhino has a square upper lip and is found in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. The white rhinos are made up of two subspecies – the southern white rhinos and the northern white rhinos. While the southern white rhinos are the most numerous among the rhino population – believed to be over 20,000 in the wild, it’s northern counterparts, previously found in Congo, are almost extinct with none known in the wild and only three left in captivity.
The black rhino is much smaller in size in comparison to the white rhino. The black rhino, also known as a hook-lipped rhino can be found in eastern and southern Africa, including Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya. Relentless hunting in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in a rapid decline of this species but they’ve managed to bounce back with around 5,000 individuals found now. Though a black rhino may be tricky to spot in the wild, an Overlanding safari in Tanzania just might increase your chance of spotting one!
The Sumatran rhino is the smallest rhino species and is thought to have the most hair. Sumatran rhinos were once widespread in Sumatra and Borneo, but due to habitat encroachment and poaching, they are reduced to a mere 275 individuals in the wild. Because their numbers are so small, they are faced with a declining genetic diversity, which makes them vulnerable to extinction due to diseases and inbreeding.
The most endangered of the five rhino species, the Javan rhino can only be found in Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, Indonesia, with only 60 individuals remaining. In terms of appearance, the Javan rhino is similar to the Indian rhino but has a much smaller head. Conservationists are fighting against time to develop a program that will help them establish a new population of Javan rhino in suitable habitats in Indonesia.
The Indian rhino has fared better than its Asian counterparts in its fight against extinction. Also known as the plated rhino, the Indian rhino was previously found in India and Nepal, but poaching reduced its numbers drastically to less than 100 in the 1960s. Thanks to strong anti-poaching measures and hunting laws, the Indian rhinos have bounced back, with at least 3,000 individuals found in the wild.
Why is It Difficult to Help the Species Survive?
Image credit: The Denver Channel
It is common practice among conservationists to help endangered species survive by first breeding them in captivity and then releasing them into the wild. However, not all animals respond to captive breeding the same, and rhino, unfortunately, fall into this category. When the Sumatran rhino was dangerously endangered in the 1980s, conservationists began an intense captive breeding program where 40 animals were captured and moved to zoos. The program failed and almost all captured animals had died of disease.
This is largely due to problems such as an inability for captive spaces to mimic the rhinos’ habitat in the wild. In the wild, rhinos eat over 200 species of leaves making up a complete diet - some of their leaves contain a compound that binds iron. However, in captivity, a rhino’s diet is less varied, which inevitably leads to iron accumulation and diseases.
Out in the wild, dwindling rhino numbers makes it harder and harder for them to breed as the loss of habitats disconnects rhino groups from each other resulting in fewer chances to meet. Eventually, the rhinos age and become infertile, and eventually, die. Such is the case that has happened to the remainder of the wild Sumatran rhinos in Borneo.
The Perils of Poaching
Image credit: The Ohio State University
But the rhino’s biggest threat comes from being the victim in the highly lucrative poaching industry. Rhinos are hunted for their horns, which are thought to be a symbolic status of success and wealth. They are also used as medicine, said to be able to heal even the direst of diseases.
In Africa, governments and activists alike are finding it increasingly challenging to stop poaching. Rhinos are known to be among the easiest of wild animals to be poached, as it is predictable and less aggressive. Its poor eyesight leaves it extremely vulnerable against poachers who are able to get within a few meters of a rhino before opening fire.
Internationally, the United Nations has put in place an international ban on rhino horn that was signed by over 180 countries. However, the ban seems to be futile as the number of rhinos poached has increased in recent years. Conservationists report that poachers have killed at least 1,338 rhinos across Africa in 2015.
Hope for The Future
If we were to sustain our rhino populations, it is of the utmost importance that we start doing something now. Activists and volunteers alike have called for greater government action to help eradicate poaching and keep the species alive. The South African government, for example, have tightened protection measures on rhino reserves with the implementation of an intensive protection zone at Kruger National Park.
Some countries have been able to sustain a strong conservation program through tourism. An example of good conservation practices is Botswana, who is known for its luxury safaris. These safaris, though tipping on the more expensive end enables the country to acquire enough funding to keep up with conservation programs. As a result, Botswana has been able to safeguard its rhino population that was thought to be almost extinct in the 1970s.
At the grassroots level, it is important that we stop the demand for rhino horns by simply refusing to purchase them. It is very easy to fall prey to the attraction of purchasing a souvenir in remembrance of our wonderful adventures in Africa, but always remember to be informed. Know what you are buying and ensure that what you purchase is not harming the wildlife around you.
Rhinos are not the only species that are endangered. Gorillas are too! Learn more about them on a gorilla safari, and find out how you can do your part to safeguard them!