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Rhinos in Crisis

Scientific name:  Rhinocerotidae

The rhinoceros is a large, primitive-looking mammal that weighs between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds, making it the 2nd largest land mammal next to the elephant.  There are five remaining species today:  the Black and White rhinos that are native to Africa and the Indian, Sumatran and Javan rhinos that occur in Asia. The black and white rhino in Africa inhabit the “big four” countries of Kenya, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa.  The white rhino’s name is derived from the Dutch word “weit”, giving reference to their wide, square muzzle, which has adapted for grazing.  They are actually gray, not white, and have a long face and a pronounced hump on the neck.  The black, or "hook-lipped”, rhinos are odd-toed ungulates, which means they have three toes on each foot.  They have one or two horns and the longer horn sits at the front of the nose.  They are actually not horns, per se, but thickly matted hair made of keratin (fingernail material) that grows from the skull without skeletal support.  The horns are used for digging in waterbeds to find water and also to guide their offspring.  While the rhino's eyesight is poor, the sense of smell and hearing are excellent.  These herbivores lack front teeth, causing them to rely on their lips to tear off grass or leaves while their molar teeth grind the food.   They spend most of their time grazing, sleeping and relaxing in the mud to moisten their tough, thick skin. 

Rhinos have a symbiotic relationship with oxpeckers, also called "tick birds", that eat ticks off the rhinos and noisily warn them of danger.  The birds also eat blood from sores on the rhino's skin, promoting healing.  For these reasons they are tolerated. Though generally peaceful when left alone, these enormous giants can be ill-tempered and have become more so in areas where they are constantly disturbed and harassed.  When aggressively attacking, the rhino lowers its head, snorts and breaks into a gallop reaching speeds of over 30 miles an hour, striking powerful and violent blows with its horns.  Considering all its bulk, the rhino is very agile and can quickly turn in a small space. They have various habitats, but mainly reside in the African bush areas with dense, woody vegetation such as grasslands and open savannas.  Their home ranges sometimes overlap with each other, causing them to share their feeding grounds and watering holes.  This is where they go daily to graze and also where they are easily ambushed by poachers.   The rhino has no natural predators and is only sought out by humans.  

 Since the 1960's the rhino as been conservation's beacon of despair. Tragically, they live on the cusp of extermination due to poaching and the booming illegal trade in sales of its horn. Africa’s black rhino population has plummeted to just 2,300 since 1993, according to Rhino Conservation. This is a pitiful number considering the over 100,000 that roamed the continent in 1960.  Since then, the world rhino population has declined 90%, with three of the five species (the Sumatran, Javan and Black) left classified as Critically Endangered, according to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Rhinos are constantly being stalked and murdered by poaching rings who kill them and take their horns for sale in the black market to be used for medicines and ornamental carvings.  Rhinos are also victims of political conflict, instability and hunters who want to kill them simply for their heads to put on display.  

The usefulness of rhino horn as medicinal was recently debunked by scientists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, despite the long held belief to the contrary.  Millions of people have believed for centuries in the notion of rhino horn as a cure-all for a wide array of illnesses, including fever and “devil possession”.  Some believe it to be an aphrodesiac and others eat preparations of various rhino body parts in hopes they will acquire magical powers.  It is even marketed by medical practioners in China and Vietnam as a treatment for extremely serious illnesses, such as cancer. Estimates for the price of illegal rhino horn value it at around $25,000 U.S. per kilogram. 

Rhino’s are dying for no one’s benefit except the criminals and hunters involved in their killings.  The world is losing this species strictly for their financial gain and personal pleasures.  Elephant poaching in Africa and Asia is being fueled by China’s booming economy causing pointless deaths and possible extinction.  This is the ultimate waste and sad travesty.  To save their lives, many conservation groups have to act as the poachers do, sneaking up on the rhinos, capturing them and cutting off their horns.  As tragic as this sounds, these people are doing a noble thing...attempting to save the animals from poachers and allowing them to live.  If poachers see a rhino with no horn they will pass it up, as it is of no worth to them. They only want the horn, which drives the money.   

The price of rhino horn has soared in the Far East where it is said to cure everything from nightmares to dysentery.  In South Africa, where horn is worth more per gram than cocaine, the monitoring network “Traffic” reported that 333 rhinos were killed last year, and 193 in the first 6 months of 2011.   There have also been thefts of rhino horns from museums and auction houses in Europe, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Sweden.  The Natural History Museum in London has now replaced the real horns with fake ones and some other museums have chosen to remove their collections altogether.  Antique horns tend to be particularly prized because they tend to be larger than wild rhino horns.  The steep rise in price is said to be driven by changes in European law, which is making rhino horn much harder to sell legitimately as well as the economic boom in China.  It is now illegal to sell rhino horn trophies and mounted horns anywhere in the UK.  Stuffed rhino heads can still be sold but each sale must now be approved.  To prevent extinction, many rhinos have been relocated to fenced sanctuaries across Africa.  

September 22nd has been named World Rhino Day by the South African World Wildlife Fund and was introduced in 2010 to create awareness of the plight of rhinos.  Wildlife organizations and enthusiasts from around the globe are coming together in a combined effort to highlight the plight of rhinos and the futility of poaching.  It is being asked that everyone in the world who cares about rhinos to lift your voice in some way for them.  Maybe each person’s small effort can somehow help this species with its battle to survive extinction.  They are in peril and desperately need our help.

Article & most images by Christina Bush

Courtesy of Paul Oxton, Wild at Heart