When people think of rhinoceroses the word cuddly rarely comes to mind. With only five remaining types of rhinoceroses remaining and most of them are endangered, we need to rethink our image of them.
Rhinoceroses can be dangerous. Chantal Beyer from Johannesburg, South Africa, was gored recently after having her picture taken with a wild rhino. The rhinoceros’ horn punctured her lung and broke several ribs. These huge creatures are neither slow nor harmless and should be treated with respect.
There are two types of rhinoceroses in Africa: the Black and the White Rhinoceroses. In Asia there are three types the Indian, the Javan, and the Sumatran Rhinoceroses. All five types of rhinoceroses are gigantic in comparison to humans. The smallest type of rhinoceros is the Sumatran, weighing 1,500 pounds and about 4 feet tall to the top of its shoulder. There were 275 Sumatran rhinoceroses remaining as of the December 2012.
The largest type of rhinoceros is the White rhinoceros (below at the Wilds in Cumberland, OH), which isn’t white, and in fact, can be darker that the so-called Black rhinoceros. The White Rhinoceros is approximately 6 feet at the shoulder and weighs about 7,700 pounds. Until recently there were two groups of White rhinoceroses in Africa, one in the north, and one in the south. The one in the south is the most numerous with approximately 16,000 individuals. The group in the north may be extinct. No individuals have been wild since 2008.
The Black Rhinoceros is much smaller than their White cousins, weighing only 3,500 pounds and just over five feet tall at the top of the shoulder. Once four subspecies of Black Rhinoceroses roamed Africa: the South-central group, South-western group, East African, and the West African. The West African group was proclaimed to be extinct in 2011.
The Javan Rhinoceros is the most reclusive. It prefers forests and swamps as its home. There was a time when this rhinoceros roamed throughout India, Burma, the Malaysia Peninsula, and Sumatra. Most recently it was found in Java and Vietnam, but the last one in Vietnam was killed in 2010. There are approximately 60 left on a preserve in Java.
The Indian Rhinoceros (pictured at right at the Warsaw Zoo in Poland) once wandered throughout Asia, now it is confined to the base of the Himalayas, in Nepal and North Eastern India. This rhinoceros is nearly as large as the African White Rhinoceros, weighing 7,100 pounds and nearly 6 and one half feet tall at the top of its shoulder.
The different types of rhinoceroses differ from each in the shape of their heads, the number of horns they have, their skin appearance and the amount of hair they have. Both of the African rhinoceroses have two horns, the larger of which is in front. They both have smooth skin and very little hair. Their heads however differ greatly with the White Rhinoceros having a broad head while the Black Rhinoceros has a smaller head with lips reminiscent of the tip of an elephant’s trunk.
Of the Asian rhinoceroses only the Sumatran Rhinoceros has two horns. The other two have a single horn. The Javan and Indian Rhinoceroses have huge folds of skin that give them an armored appearance and very little hair. The Sumatran also has skin folds, but they are much less distinctive. The Sumatran has the most hair of all rhinoceroses.
Rhinoceroses have few natural predators. Large cats and crocodiles are sometimes able to take a young rhinoceros, but the females are vicious when protecting their young so there is a great deal of risk in trying to take one.
Man is the cause of the decline of the rhinoceros. Poachers hunt them for the horns on their heads, which are different from other animal horns as they have no bone but are solid keratin (below is a photo of a Tibetan monk holding a rhino horn taken in 1938.). Poachers kill the animal, cut off the horn, and leave the rest of the animal behind to decay. The horns are in great demand as an ingredient in some traditional Asian medicines to reduce of fevers not as an aphrodisiac as is widely believed. In Vietnam the price of rhino horn is reportedly up to $40,000 per kilogram. In the Middle East, the horns are carved to make beautiful decorative dagger handles. These daggers are given to 12 year-old boys in Yemen and other countries as a symbol of manhood.
The Chinese government removed rhinoceros horn from the Chinese medicine pharmacopoeia in 1993. The British Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine denounced the use of rhinoceros horn as a medicine in 2011. A growing number of traditional Chinese scholars support giving up the use of rhinoceros horn. Governments are working to reduce the amount of poaching, but the number of rhinoceros killed each year is on the increase. In South African preserves 333 rhinoceroses were found dead in 2010, 448 were found in 2011, and as of December 21, 2012, 633 rhinoceroses had been killed. The fate of the rhinoceroses in the wild is headed toward extinction. It is difficult to protect them from poachers even in parks.
Zoos around the world have joined to develop a Global Captive Action Plan (GCAP) for the long-term survival of rhinoceroses. Meticulous records are being kept of the lineage of the rhinos born in captivity in an effort to maintain genetic diversity. A group of at least 20 individuals is considered to be the minimum required for a viable population. In order for a group to be considered wild they must have enough space in a natural rhino habitat to survive without human intervention.
With continued effort, it is possible that some species of rhinoceroses will survive. With modern medicines being far more effective than rhino horn at reducing fevers, perhaps demand will drop and poaching won’t be as profitable. Until that happens, rhinoceroses are in danger of disappearing forever.