The rhinoceros once roamed all of the Eurasia and Africa territory, captivating early European people and inspiring immortal works of art on cave walls. Once abundant in their native lands, the rhinoceros’ population once numbered over 100,000 in the early part of the twentieth century. Now found only in Borneo, Sumatra, Namibia, Coastal East Africa, and the Himalayas, the Rhino faces the very real and present danger of extinction.
While particular subspecies have seen rising populations due to the dedicated efforts of conservationists, the Northern White Rhinoceros’ subspecies is now believed to be completely extinct in the wild, with only a limited population living solely in captivity. Though they range from 4,000-5,000 pounds, it is not their meat that entices hunters and poachers. A sea of misinformation prompts the industry that threatens the rhino.
Superstition and Threats to the Rhino
Superstitious and unfounded beliefs in alleged powers derived from the powdered rhinoceros horns had, sadly, fueled a market for poachers and hunters alike. The belief that rhinoceros horns can cure fever, headaches, snakebites, increase libido, rid the body of typhoid, ease a hangover, stop nosebleeds, cure cancer, and could even be used in exorcisms, drives the increasing market for this medicinal commodity.
Practitioners of traditional medicine in both Europe and Asia have attributed these unfounded qualities to the rhino’s keratin-rich horn. Rhinoceros horns have been used ornamentally for at least 1,300 years. Today, in the Middle Eastern nation of Yemen area, a dagger that owns a handle that was made from a rhino’s horn is still prized as a status symbol representing the attainment of manhood to the local Muslim community. Issued to young men upon the achievement of their twelfth birthday, the dagger handle is often decorated with jewels and has a religious significance to many of the local people.
Demystification of the rhino, and education about the superstitious beliefs that are fueling their pursuit are critical to preserving these populations on the long-term.
Hunting and Poaching
Adult rhinos have no natural predators; however, the commodification of their horns has led hunters and poachers (illegal hunters) to risk it all, hoping to obtain significant profit.
In countries with depressed economies, the promise of a potential $250,000 wage per horn is hard to pass up. In 2015 alone, over 1,300 rhinoceroses were needlessly killed in the escalating hunting, snaring, and poaching trend of recent years. As they are substantially rewarded for their killing, the poachers are well organized in their occupation and usually difficult to thwart.
An Ever-Shrinking Gene Pool
With a diminishing total number of rhinoceroses, a real caveat to increasing their numbers is the poor genetic diversity of the group. Even with the responsible encouragement of breeding, the integrity of the species is at risk due to the lack of genetic variation and expression within their communities.
Vulnerability to the Environment
The rhino is highly vulnerable to sudden changes in their environment. Tsunamis, volcanoes, and disease impact the already shrinking numbers of this species. As many rhinoceroses dwell in sanctuaries, national parks, and dedicated refugees, a disease affecting cattle or other species in the sanctuary can quickly infiltrate the entire rhino population.
The Role of the Rhino
The fate of many animals and humans who share their land is inextricably bound with that of the rhino. They are part of the same habitat and are influenced by the same conditions. Elephants, buffalo, and numerous small animals are all protected by efforts to thwart the extinction of the rhino.
Likewise, the rhino is a useful source of income for the countries it can be found in, enhancing the tourism market in Africa and the Himalayas. Tourism may be of help to locals if the populations are well-protected in their ecosystems.
Current Efforts to Protect the Rhino
In some cases, people implemented programs to remove the horns of rhinoceroses humanely so as to eliminate the incentive for hunters and poachers to pursue the species.
Other locales have launched initiatives to encourage landowners to convert their land into protected sanctuary space. Changing the hearts of owners has been a difficult challenge as conservation offers little financial incentive in exchange for their land.
A growing number of practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine have come out to denounce the use of rhino horns and educate people on this important topic. Initiatives to make hunting of the rhino illegal, impose regulations and fines, and perform research to better limit and control rhino killing are all being implemented to preserve the species.
What Can Be Done?
The plight of rhinos is driven by misinformation. Share what you learn about the rhino, inform others about what science has to say regarding faux health hoax cures which utilize rhino horns, engage in advocacy work, support conservation projects and sanctuaries, and stand with organizations dedicated to getting the truth out. While the situation of the rhino is indeed urgent, you can make a difference for their current situation.