Published On: Sun, Sep 16th, 2018

Protecting rhinos: It is never too late to help the animal survive the onslaught of humans

Several animals are facing the threat of extinction mainly due to poaching by greedy humans who want to trade in the animals for commercial reasons and make a living out of it. The rhinoceros, considered the second biggest animal (weighing about 1.5 ton) after the African elephant face severe threat of existence as its numbers have dwindled rapidly. From sharks and whales to elephants, rhinos, and tigers, the poachers spare no animals, and the rhino population across the world has reached precariously low level.  To understand the severity of the problem you have to look at some numbers. At the beginning of the 20th century there were 500,000 rhinos across Asia and Africa, and according to the latest count, only 29,000 are available.  The primary reason for such a drastic decline in the rhino population is widespread poaching which keeps growing at an alarming rate. Another reason is the loss of habitat.

From “Rhino Wars”

The animal draws attraction not only for its enormous size but also for the horn. The horn is the reason why people kill the animal because it has some healing properties and medicinal use that makes it priceless in the commercial world. The high demand for rhino horns has led to the mindless killing of the animal that is now on the verge of extinction.  Of the five species of the animal known to humans, three species are on the critically endangered list. The largest of the species is the white rhino and black rhino found in Africa, but despite having the same looks, it differs in size that helps to distinguish one from another. In Asia, you will come across the Indian rhino, the Javan rhino and the Sumatran rhino but the numbers are much less as also these are of smaller size.

Nature has its own rules that allow wildlife to survive despite some animals preying on others. It is an exception that the rhinoceros does not have any predators and with an average lifespan of 60 years, there should not have been any reason for fearing its extinction in just a few hundred years. However, the greed for trading in rhinoceros horn has driven people to extremes that have led to the merciless killing of the animal that otherwise is entirely harmless in that it is an herbivore and not a predator itself. The poor animal that derives its nutrients from grasses, shoots, leaves, buds, and fruits which are the mainstays of rhinoceros diet and has a very tough and thick skin (1.5 cm thick) is now counting its days before it joins the league pre-historic animals that are now extinct.

Rhino in the mud at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom photo/Brandon Jones

The attraction of the rhinoceros horn

The horn is not only the most distinguishable feature of the animal like the elephant’s trunk, but it is also a very prized possession for those who know its commercial worth.  The rhinoceros horns comprise of a protein named keratin, which is responsible for making up fingernails and hair in most animals as well as humans. Although people sometimes sell the horns as decorations and trophies, its main attraction is for medicinal use. Many traditional Chinese medicines use the ingredients of the horn by grinding it in powder form. Some species of rhinos have two horns with a smaller horn placed just above the big one.

The vulnerability of rhinos

Here are some interesting rhinoceros facts. The huge size of rhinos often make us feel that it can protect itself well from the dangers in the surrounding, which it can but remains highly vulnerable as a target of humans. The rhino has a keen sense of smell and has brilliant hearing abilities but a poor vision which makes it vulnerable to bullets fired from the guns of poachers who care for nothing but money. It will not be wrong to say that the animal is almost blind which makes it easy prey for poachers.

Rhinos made humans believe in unicorn

There is enough reason to believe that the mythical unicorn that was distinguishable from its horn was the result of humans imagining it that way by drawing inspiration from the rhino horn. Just as the unicorn horn was supposed to be a cure for many diseases, the same applies for the rhino horn. People believe in the superpowers of the rhino horn for curing ailments.

The Venetian explorer Marco Polo had mentioned about the Sumatran rhino that he had seen during his travels in 1298, but he had referred it as a unicorn because it was the first time that he saw such an animal which was as big as an elephant. He went on to describe the animal as having hair of a buffalo, a very thick and black horn in the middle of the forehead and feet like those of an elephant.

They love grasslands

Being herbivores, rhinos are fond of living in grasslands, especially the white rhinos and black rhinos. Since the ideal rhinoceros habitat is available across Africa and Asia, it is natural that the rhinoceros population concentrate at these places only and not found in any other parts of the world.  The floodplains of eastern and southern Africa are the most favorite places for the animal with the best species found at these places. The rainforests and swamps of India and parts of south Nepal are homes to the great one-horned rhino. To look for Sumatran and Javan rhinos, you have to explore the wetlands and rainforests found in some small parts of Indonesia and Malaysia.

Protecting rhinos

It has now become clear that there is an urgent need to protect rhinos from extinction and sanctuaries and national parks have now become their homes. It is almost impossible for rhinos to survive beyond the boundaries of reserves and national parks due to many decades of habitat loss and widespread poaching that is on the rise. In Asia, Javan and Sumatran rhinos belong to the group of critically endangered species. In 2011, a subspecies of the Javan rhino became extinct in Vietnam. A small population of Javan rhino still exists in Java, the Indonesian island. Efforts in conservation have given some positive results as there has been an increase in the number of the third species, the greater one-horned Indian rhino. Although it has climbed upwards in status transiting from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable,’ it is still a favorite for poachers who miss no chance of killing the animal for the horn.

The conservation is also showing some encouraging results in Africa. There was a time when people thought that the southern white rhinos had become extinct, but now you can see it in sanctuaries and national parks carrying the label of ‘threatened.’ But it is a sad thing that despite the efforts in conservation, the northern white rhinos and the western black rhinos have truly become extinct in the wild. You can only find these in reserves and national parks. Today, only three northern white rhinos are remaining and survive under round the clock protection of guards in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

The 1970s is indeed a black decade in the history of black rhinos because, during the ten years, the population of the species drastically came down to 10% as 90% became victims of poaching. The good news is that the number of black rhinos has doubled in the past two decades over the earlier population of 2500, but still, it is no match to 100,000 of the same species that lived on the earth at the beginning of the 20th century. You can find black rhinos in pockets of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Namibia, and Kenya.

Features of black rhino

The black rhino can weigh as much as 1770 kg or 3,900 pounds and has an average length of 4 meters (14 feet) while standing at 1 meter (4.5 feet) at the shoulder. The species is special among rhinos because of its two horns, one big and one small, both being very prominent and it is easily recognizable by its prehensile upper lip that is also pointed and long. The longest horn is 50cm (20 inches) on an average and made from hair-like fibers tightly compacted. Like all other species of rhinos, the black rhino is also a herbivore.

The white rhino is not white

It might sound strange, but the reality is that white rhinos are not at all white and not much different from the usual dark and muddy appearance of rhinos that we are all familiar with. So, why do people still name it a white rhino?  The white rhino derives its name from a Dutch word ‘wijde’ which means ‘wide’ that aptly matches with the description of the lips of the animal. However, it seems to be a case of mistaken translation that the meaning of the Dutch word has undergone distortion and is at variance with the actual description of the animal. The standard colors of rhino are brown, grey and black but never white.

The time has come when we must fight for the cause of rhinoceros to help it survive the killer attacks from humans.

Author: Charlie Brown

White Rhino, rhinocerous

Public domain image/Trisha M Shears

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- Outside contributors to the Dispatch are always welcome to offer their unique voices, contradictory opinions or presentation of information not included on the site.

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