The rhinoceros, the unicorn of the savannah, is the second largest land mammal in the world and is found in both Africa and Asia. The five species, two in Africa and three in Asia, are easily distinguishable for their hard, prehistoric features, and the presence of either one or two horns on their faces . The word “rhinoceros” actually means “nose horn”  in Greek.
All species are extremely endangered, with some species represented by fewer than 50 individuals. The rhinoceros today provides a chilling example of the rapid and accelerating disappearance of wildlife on the planet .
All rhinos are herbivores, which means that they eat only plants, though different species vary in their preference for grass over bushes and leaves .
And, based on the fossil record, they have been doing so for 50 million years. Evidence of prehistoric rhinos can be found right after that of the extinction of the dinosaurs. Nobody is exactly sure how these early species, called perissodactyls, evolved into modern day rhinos, but it is clear that they are now represented in all contemporary rhinos, horses, zebras, and tapirs .
Though they did not all look like modern day rhinos, their ancestors were distributed widely across the globe, even in Europe, as recently as 20,000 years ago . The rhinoceros used to roam through the valleys of China as well, but by 1912, the end of the Qing dynasty, they had been extirpated from the region because of human predation .
But like many megavertebrates, for example elephants, rhinos are vanishing everywhere so fast that they may disappear before their habitat does .
Some losses were just part of climate changes 12,000 years ago, when much of the richness of the Pleistocene megafauna disappeared, save for populations in Africa and South Asia . But most dangerous to rhino populations has been the hunting for their horns–used in Asia as a traditional medicine and in the Middle East as ornaments–bringing rapid, large-scale reductions in both population range and numbers .
These two reductions exacerbate one another, as narrow population ranges limit genetic diversity and make the rhinoceros particularly vulnerable to extinction , yielding dramatic population losses of over 60,000 black rhinos in only 20 years .
Why are rhinos important to the environment?
It is likely overly romantic and impractical, thinking of the rhinoceros as an ambassador from a prehistoric time, a relic from a long ago era, a glimpse of life in the Pleistocene. But rhinoceroses represent more than just a time capsule.
Research indicates that large animals like rhinoceroses are the key redistributors of nutrients in the hydrological cycle; the process of water falling as precipitation and evaporating from bodies of water .
Rhinos are also crucial to tourism, as one of the “Big Five” game animals, helping to provide local communities involved in the accommodation, guiding, and restaurant sectors of the tourism industry . Tourists associate the Big Five with Africa, and economic implications of an extinction like the rhinoceros would be devastating from not only an ecological perspective, but a social and economic one as well .
Interesting facts about rhinos
- A group of rhinos is called a “crash.”
- During their head-to-head fights, rhinos make a sound that resembles honking.
- Rhinos can spray urine over 16 feet, to dominate other males or mask the scent of a newborn calf.
- Rhinos walk on their toenails because their feet are so sensitive.
- Rhino horns are made of keratin, and tend to curve backward, toward the head, because the keratin in front grows faster than the keratin in the back.
- Their horns are made of the same material as human fingernails.
- Rhinos have terrible eyesight and struggle to see further than 30 meters.
- Their farts smell like sulfur.
- Female rhinos can be pregnant for as long as 16 months.
Did you know?
Reasons why rhinos are endangered
Though, like many large vertebrates, habitat loss threatens the rhinoceros, the illegal hunting for their horn is the principle cause of the species’ endangerment and decline . Despite laws being put in place and the efforts of governments and organizations built to protect endangered species, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and TRAFFIC, rhinos are still being poached.
Almost all species of rhinoceros have been listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), quantifying all trade in rhino horn as illegal.
When drastically reduced in this manner, rhino populations also experience intrinsic demographic problems, such as:
- biased sex ratios
- failures of survival and fertility
- unstable age distributions that disrupt the propagation of the species
Small populations lose genetic fitness and are more subject to changing environmental conditions and fluctuations in their surroundings. Natural disasters can be devastating for them.
As populations become smaller and more fragmented, the greater these stochastic risks can be .
Why are rhinos being poached?
The use of rhino horn is not new.
The Chinese have traditionally used natural elements to bring nature indoors, in the form of ornamental rocks or rhinoceros horns, to bring their owners closer to nature . Though initially Chinese collectors were able to source rhino horn from Asian species, by the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), the height of rhinoceros horn carvings, they had already established regular trade with Africa for African rhino horn .
Powdered rhino horn has been a key ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine for over four millennia . And, recently, rhino horn is considered a symbol of wealth and success .
Rhino horn is simply keratin — chemically identical to clipped human fingernails. But it is still valued for its Eastern medicinal applications, despite a lack of scientific evidence that it yields any medical benefit.
The Western media has misinterpreted Asian beliefs and publicized that rhino horn was used as an aphrodisiac and sexual stimulant. These rumours are now circulating through Asia as well and the incorrect assumptions have gone global .
Research shows that many consumers are not even buying rhino horn for its medicinal value at all, but for the emotional value ascribed to the social status of its perceived prestige .
The trade of rhinoceros horns has been illegal in China since 1993, and illegal in the United States since the US Endangered Species Act of 1973 , and the trade of antique rhino horn carvings is heavily regulated in both countries .
But the desire for and trade in rhino horn continues to flourish. The price per kilo – approximately $25,000 or more – fuels sophisticated underground networks throughout Asia, cultivating black market cartels that subvert the rule of law adeptly.
The potential extinction of the rhinoceros has done little to stymie the trade. If anything, traders use the threat of extinction to try and drive up the market value .
Rhino poaching networks are establishing themselves as the new mafia of a global underground marketplace.
Between 2007 and 2014, rhino poaching rose 9,000% .
Poachers are using progressively more sophisticated means; they have military-style weapons, vehicles and helicopters in pursuit of elephants and rhinos, threatening even the wildlife rangers tasked with protecting these animals .
What the trade of these animals doesn’t take into account, is the large disruption this causes to the area they are taken from. Tourists visit places where these animals live and bring in a lot of money to the local economy.
How to stop rhino poaching?
CITES trade prohibitions and its Appendix I listing should, in theory, offer protections to the rhinoceros on a global scale, but CITES regulations have not thus far been successful in reducing the demand that is fueling the trade in rhino horn . But rhino smuggling is almost impossible to police, as it involves agents at every level, in multiple countries, and crosses so many borders .
The illegal trade in rhino horn mimics that of drugs, both in its scope and growth, and in the failure to rely on law enforcement in the face of an overpowering consumer demand .
Successful strategy: Rhino conservation as a form of private land use
A number of southern African countries like South Africa and Namibia had, for a time, stymied poaching through the use of strong law enforcement with intensive monitoring in areas that are specifically state-protected. They also emphasized policies that enabled rhino-related economic benefits for private landholders and rural communities .
The success of these southern African nations wildlife management strategies can also be attributed to the involvement of private landholders and rural communities.
Wildlife management policies of Namibia and South Africa heavily promote locally-managed, commercial use of wildlife, and are thereby encouraging the adoption of wildlife as a form of private land use .
And, because of their success, more strategies for rhino conservation are market-based and more rhino ranges are being incorporated into private lands, particularly farming and cattle grazing lands .
But it comes at a cost. Many private conservancies spend an estimated minimum of $200 per km2/year to protect their rhinoceroses, and these relatively small and fortified reserves are sometimes the only areas where rhinos can be effectively maintained .
Many southern Africa countries, as a result of these costs, have pushed for the legalization of rhino horn trade to help offset, though this proposal has deeply polarized the rhino conservation community . Though some believe that the trade ban on rhino horn has been ineffective at reversing the species’ decline , it is unknown whether legalizing the trade would escalate the demand in Asian markets.
Additionally, a legal trade in rhino horn lends credibility to the commodification of the horn as a medical supplement. And, while some populations of white rhinoceroses in Africa could survive an uptick from the initiating of a legal trade, the Asian rhinos, particularly the Javan and Sumatran species, are already facing extinction under current conditions .
Whether or not a legal rhino horn trade is accepted by CITES, countries may unilaterally restrict or prohibit the importation of exotic wildlife trophies, like rhino horns.
Regardless, with captive breeding efforts severely challenged, new solutions must be explored to help the existing rhinoceros populations flourish despite current circumstances.
What species of rhinos are already extinct?
In 2018, the death of the last male northern white rhino made headlines, because it made the subspecies functionally extinct.
This subspecies had initially lived in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and rebel groups had decimated wild populations.
It was not until those wild populations were already extinct that anyone realized that the subspecies was in trouble. Only a handful of zoo animals remained, and despite innovative breeding techniques, the death of the last male will likely mean that the subspecies will be officially classified as extinct .
Sumatran rhinos are also hanging on by a thread, as are the Javan rhino. Sumatran rhinos have already gone extinct in Vietnam in 2010 and in Malaysia in 2015. Currently, fragmented populations survive in only three national parks in Sumatra .
Conservation efforts: How are rhinos being protected?
Current efforts are emphasizing the establishment of genomic studies to assess the viability of particularly small and fragmented populations to improve their breeding prospects and cultivate their populations .
Given the precarious state of all but the southern white rhinoceros — which itself has survived a recent population bottleneck — genomic studies are necessary to establish the viability of the critically small populations and to guide any efforts to improve their prospects by breeding and population management.
Conservation strategies for these vulnerable populations must be based on maintaining certain viability standards in order to survive the stochastic as well as the deterministic threats .
Genomic analyses will also enable forensic scientists to link horn products that are confiscated to illuminate trade patterns and help prosecutors .
The survival of the southern white rhino subspecies even after a severe population bottleneck shows that there might still be hope for the other four populations, but conservation science will have to be innovative and use all its tricks to help them .
Some Indian rhinos have successfully been used as a source for repopulating other nature reserves .
Protection of rhinos can be achieved only through the proper law enforcement in the area and the work of specialized non-governmental organizations in close cooperation with local community. Local people are the key element in tackling the problem of poaching, as they have the knowledge of the area, know the practices and are constantly present.
Placing emphasis on local was a large part of the success of Nepal’s achievement; celebrating two years of being rhino poaching free.
What can you do to help?
If you don’t live near a site or rhino conservation program, you can help by supporting organizations like the WWF by “adopting” a rhino.
Or you can start step by step by sharing this article with your friends who might be interested in helping.
The rhino as an iconic, rare, and exotic species garners attention from the public, much to its glory and its downfall .
And, as a keystone species for tourism sites across Africa, it creates opportunities for historical interactions and for the improvement of economic and social environments of local communities .
Rhinos have survived for over 50 million years, but the barrage of the modern human may prove too much for this prehistoric megafauna.
It will require all the creativity and perseverance of the scientific and conservation communities to protect the remaining populations and help them survive into the next era for future generations to experience.
 Steenwijk, Leila De Vos Van. “Nature in Asian art: A guide to symbols, motifs and meanings.” Christie’s. April 19, 2016. http://www.christies.com/features/Nature-in-Asian-art-7220-1.aspx
 Jenyns, R. S., and William Watson. Chinese Art III. (New York: Rizzoli, 1982), 137.
 “Rhinoceros Horn Carving.” China Online Museum. http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/carving-horn.php
 “Despite Ban, Rhino Horn Flooding Black Markets Across China.” National Geographic. July 18, 2017. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/wildlife-watch-rhino-horn-china/