RaRE CaREs about Rhinos

Amanda Beltz

The rhinoceros is the second largest land animal after elephants. Although both animals share some similarities, rhinos actually belong to the same member of the mammalian order as horses and tapirs. There are currently five extant species of rhinoceros; 2 are endemic to Africa, while three are endemic to India and Southeast Asia. The largest member of the rhinos is the white rhinoceros. They are followed in size by the Indian rhino, black rhino, Javan rhino, and the Sumatran rhino.

There are many ways to tell the rhinos apart. The white rhinoceros has a wide, or square-shaped lip, hence its other name, the square-lipped rhinoceros. This is because the white rhinoceros is largely a grazer. The black rhinoceros on the other hand, prefers trees and bushes to grass, and is a browser. Due to its diet, the black rhinoceros has a small digit-like upper lip to help grab leaves, and is also referred to as the hook-lipped rhinoceros. Both of these species are native to Africa and have two horns. The other species of rhino are found in Asia. The Indian rhinoceros can be found in fragmented grasslands across Northeastern India and Nepal. The Javan rhinoceros is found in only one area on the western tip of Java in Indonesia. Both of these species belong to the same genus and are very closely related. However, the Indian rhinoceroses are much larger and both genders have one horn on their snouts. However, only male Javan rhinoceroses have the single horn; females are hornless. Finally the Sumatran rhinoceros is found in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia. Unlike the other Asian rhinoceroses, Sumatran rhinos actually have two horns. Additionally, they are the hairiest of the rhinos, leading people to refer to them as the hairy rhino.

Most of the rhinoceroses are either endangered or critically endangered. Competition with people for habitat across their range poses a secondary threat. However, the single greatest threat posed to rhinoceroses is poaching for the horn. Historically, throughout medieval times, rhino horns were often used as both dagger handles and sheaths. Across East Asia, the horn served an entirely different purpose. The horn would be grounded up into a powder, and then used as a medicine. According to traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that ground rhino horn can treat almost any condition, from headaches and hangovers to strokes and even cancer. Ironically, rhino horn is composed of compressed keratin, the same material as our fingernails.

Nonetheless, this illegal trade has decimated the rhino population across the globe. So much so that there are only about 100-150 Sumatran rhinoceroses and 63 Javan rhinoceroses left. Due to their dwindling numbers both of these rhinos are listed as critically endangered. The black rhinoceros is also listed as critically endangered, with less than 5,000 individuals scattered across Southern and Eastern Africa.

However, all is not lost. In spite of the odds, two species of rhinoceros are on the road to recovery. In 1975, there were only 600 Indian rhinos left. However, thanks to intense conservation initiatives between India and Nepal, the population is now up to about 3,500 individuals. It is now listed as vulnerable instead of endangered. Additionally, the white rhinoceros has had a similar success story. In the late 1800s, there were around 100 white rhinos left in Southern Africa. Now the population is over 20,000 thanks to conservation measures put in place in Southern Africa and it is listed as near threatened instead of endangered.

Much like with the white and Indian rhinoceroses, we have the power to turn the tide against extinction for all rhinos. It all comes down to protecting the last populations of rhinoceroses through conservation, as well as curbing the demand for rhino horn with education. Many steps will have to be taken if we want to see rhinoceroses survive for future generations to enjoy, but it can be done.

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